The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published: 2012, HarperCollins (Originally 2011)
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Source: Personal collection
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He had been trained, a little, by his father. The rest was—what? Divine? This was more of the gods than I had ever seen in my life. He made it look beautiful, this sweating, hacking art of ours. I understood why his father did not let him fight in front of others. How could any ordinary man take pride in his own skill when there was this in the world?
I'll admit that I'm a bit disappointed. It's been a while since I've read some Greek mythology or any retellings, but my knowledge and fascination in this subject area was quick to return upon starting The Song of Achilles. The Song of Achilles retells the events leading up to the Trojan War and the war itself from the perspective of Patroclus, the closest friend and ally of Achilles. It was this knowledge that initially drew me to the story. I've read many books based on the history and mythology of Ancient Greece over the years, and, since I'm generally familiar with the events of the stories themselves, I always appreciate it when authors can take a creative approach.
Patroclus has spent the first decade of his life unloved, told that he's the unworthy heir of King Menoetius. After causing a tragic accident, Patroclus is banished from his kingdom and sent to be raised by King Peleus of Phthia. It is there that Patroclus meets the boy destined to become one of the most important Greeks ever known: Achilles. Together Patroclus and Achilles form a friendship and eventual relationship that helps determine the fate of the Trojan War.
I really did appreciate the fact that Miller chose a different route to retell the story of Achilles' life and the Trojan War. Too many of these retellings focus on the battle itself, on romance and glory and destiny and death. Those elements are still part of The Song of Achilles, but side elements to the relationship that blossoms between Patroclus and Achilles. They are a most unlikely pairing: Patroclus, an exiled former prince who has spent his entire childhood thinking that he's worthless and stupid, and Achilles, the golden prince chosen by the gods for greatness, who nonetheless struggles with the knowledge of his destiny. Because the novel spans from their pre-teen years until their late twenties, Miller is able to carefully craft a nuanced, realistic relationship between the two. The gradual pacing in how Patroclus and Achilles go from wary strangers to companions to good friends to lovers is incredibly well done. It's also worth pointing out that many, many retellings of the Trojan War era choose to leave their relationship ambiguous or interpret it solely as a friendship, so Miller should be lauded for her temerity in acknowledging the fact that their relationship may have been romantic.
Although Patroclus and Achilles are the most important and most well-developed characters, The Song of Achilles has no lack of strong secondary character characterizations, mortal and immortal alike. Achilles' mother, the sea nymph Thetis, has a fairly significant role in this novel, both as Achilles' greatest supporter and as Patroclus' most dangerous enemy. Odysseus is as wily as ever, but he also has a more vulnerable side here. Briseis, far from being the woman who could break Achilles and Patroclus apart, becomes Patroclus' closest confidante. Miller's story touches up many of major players, taking them off the pedestals of time and turning them human.
The prose in The Song of Achilles is lovely, but I found that it ultimately became a double-edged sword. For the sake of lovely writing, the ten-year-old Patroclus narrating the story from his first-person perspective does not end up sounding like a boy. Reading Patroclus' descriptions of his feelings, surroundings, and of others (especially Achilles) caused me to pause more than once. I tried to be generous and reason that perhaps this is an older Patroclus reflecting back on his youthful experiences. In a way, perhaps that is what Miller intended. But Patroclus' inner descriptions never quite meshed with the spoken dialogue of the characters, especially in the interactions between Patroclus and Achilles. Consequently, I felt a sense of disconnect between Patroclus as our narrator and Patroclus as the boy who grows into a man in Ancient Greece.
After concluding the book, I think I've come to understand just why few authors have chosen Patroclus as their protagonist. For the sake of those few readers who are unfamiliar with how the Trojan War unfolds, I'll avoid giving any specific spoilers. Suffice it to say that by the end of the novel, Patroclus proved to be a poor choice as narrator, forcing Miller to write the final chapters in a stilted and awkward fashion. I appreciate that Miller brought life into an underrepresented yet integral character from the Trojan War, but I do not think that making Patroclus the protagonist was the correct move considering the scope of the story that Miller wanted to tell.
While this book did not work for me quite as well as I had expected it would, a quick glance at Goodreads or Amazon shows that my opinion is not a common one. The Song of Achilles is a well-researched and impressive story, but many of Miller's narrative techniques were not ones that I could personally enjoy. I think this might work best with those who aren't as familiar with the Trojan War as I, or those who aren't as nitpicky about the issues that I mentioned.
Rating: 2.5 stars