Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals. Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

I went into this book not expecting much. I knew it was known as ’the gay Illiad”, but that didn’t explain anything. I only knew the basics about the Iliad and the story of Achilles. I must admit I didn't know who Patroclus was. I only knew the key players like Paris, Hector and of course Achilles.

What pulled me in from the first page was Patroclus' voice. He sounds very gentle in his story telling, which must have been intentional on Miller's part. It makes the reader grasp Patroclus' character even without him 'introducing himself'. I also loved Achilles’ first introduction as ‘the son Patroclus was not.’ What Miller does best here, is the way she fleshes out characters in a really subtle way; in their dialogue, their gestures and reactions, the things they say, the things they don't say. This is how characterization should be done in every book.

The heart of this book is Patroclus and Achilles relationship. It started so fittingly as a friendship and evolved into something more once they both hit puberty. It means they're friends before they're lovers, which is apparent in every interaction between them. That makes their love that much richer. 

"Name one hero who was happy."
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason's children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus' back.
"You can't." He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
"I can't."
"I know. They never let you be famous AND happy." He lifted an eyebrow. "I'll tell you a secret."
"Tell me." I loved it when he was like this.
"I'm going to be the first." He took my palm and held it to his. "Swear it."
"Why me?"
"Because you're the reason. Swear it."
"I swear it," I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.
"I swear it," he echoed. We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned. "I feel like I could eat the world raw.”

The Troyan war is a big part of this book, of course, and it keeps dawning on the reader that the carefree lives of Patroclus and Achilles on the mountain with Chiron (where the boys are learning everything from hunting to medicine) must come to an end in the most tragic way possible. And yet, even that is beautifully done. Even prior knowledge can't save the reader from the amount of emotion found in the last chapters. Miller doesn't hold back, and the book becomes better for it.

Miller recognizes that the real tragedy is not Achilles' and Patroclus' deaths, but the price of Achilles' fame. A huge thing in the book is Achilles' dream of becoming immortal and remembered through his actions in the war. It's the reason he participates in the first place, because he fears a life in which he is insignificant. At the end, he is remembered, but for the wrong things. He is remembered for his bloodthirst and wrath and the things he does in his grief instead of the things and people he loves and his great deeds.

All in all, a great book and I highly recommend it if any of the things I just mentioned is appealing to you.

Stars on Goodreads: 5/5

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