Book Review | The Song of Achilles

Looking back, I should have known this book would be devastating. Especially considering how much I love mythology, I should have seen it coming, how emotionally invested I got. In fact, I spent most of the evening after I finished the book texting my friend in all caps about this novel.

So yeah. You could say I liked The Song of Achilles.

This is a story told by Patroclus, a prince in a small Greek kingdom. As a child, he is exiled by his cruel father for a crime that was really self defense and sent to a different land. There in Phthia, he meets Achilles, also a prince but one stronger and more beautiful. They become unlikely friends, and more, and go to Chiron, the great centaur, to learn medicine and battle and survival. All is well, until the call to war comes: Helen has been taken by the Trojans, and the Greeks will do anything to get her back. Despite the efforts of Achilles’ sea goddess mother Thetis to keep her son safe, Achilles is determined to become a hero. He and Patroclus, bound by oath to King Menelaus, join the cause and venture to Troy. There, they face violence and fear, and some of the most difficult decisions of their young lives as they attempt to fight fate and the gods themselves to stay together.

First of all, Patroclus is a wonderful narrator and character. He’s a bit awkward and meek, not much of a fighter. Yet he’s earnest and strong in other ways. His personality both contrasts with and complements that of Achilles, who’s the epitome of heroism and the strongest warrior in Greece. Yet he’s also kind, not necessarily wanting to kill. Other famous figures—Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, Hector, Priam, and so on—feel familiar, yet are shown from a fresh perspective. (Especially Odysseus, who I actually liked in this, unlike in the original epics.) And others—Thetis, Briseis, even Iphigenia and Deidameia—who were not given a spotlight in The Iliad, or even existed at all within its narrative, are treated well. Thetis in particular is interesting, a deity but a minor one, trapped as much by fate as her doomed son, even as she tries anything and everything to protect him and give him the legacy she wants for him.

The plot is, like our heroes and fighters, familiar but simultaneously novel. Everything that occurs during the Trojan War has roots within the canon, but with new interpretations that can even be argued as better. As for Patroclus’ backstory and his life with Achilles before the war, the entire tale feels well fleshed out and fits in well with the Greek myths. Seeing these two boys from a young age, innocent and hopeful, makes for a fascinating progression of their personalities through the course of the war that makes the ending even more heartbreaking. And through it all, the love between Patroclus and Achilles (something I defy you to find textual evidence against in Homer, I dare you) is probably stronger than the might of both armies combined. This plot is largely about the cruelty of war, yes, and has elements of historical fiction and the supernatural, but to me it is mostly a romance.

Miller’s narrative voice is lovely, melodic, and evocative of the Homeric epics. Rich in imagery and emotion, the scenes are painted vividly. The settings are described well, the feelings conveyed with realism, and the action sequences delivered with a strong dose of adrenaline.

The only not-stellar thing I noticed about the writing is that Miller changes between past and present tense, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. I can easily chalk it up to this being her first novel, though. Furthermore, the tense changes didn’t even really distract me; sometimes it took me a half-dozen pages to notice it had switched. And besides, the writing and plot overall are good enough that the tenses are irrelevant. I’d forgive a lot more of Miller, simply because of how engaging this book is.

I almost wish I could have read this without knowing what happens in The Iliad, so that I could have better basked in the happiness and love Patroclus and Achilles had for a while longer. So I could have had the rug torn from under me, rather than reading while knowing full well I was standing on the bare floor, so to speak. But at the same time, knowing the endgame—having both these boys knowing generally the endgame as well—lent this story a melancholy gravity and different sort of suspense. And that was fantastic too. (Even while it pained me. They deserved more; they deserved better.)

In the end The Song of Achilles made me very emotional. The writing is quite good, aside from tense issues. The characters are wonderful. The plot is well-constructed and does not contradict the canon it’s retelling. This novel as a whole brings new light to an ancient story, giving credit and screen time to different, but also important, figures. It’s innovative and powerful, a truly impressive work.

Overall rating: 9/10

So I pestered my friend with all-caps texts about this book. What’s a book you’ve screamed about?

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