Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

song of achilles

Publication: September 20th 2011
Publisher:  Ecco
Pages:  378 pages
Source: Bookmobile
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mythology, Greek Mythology, Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, LGBTQ*
My Rating: ⛤⛤⛤⛤

When I think of Achilles, I think of the maybe gay invincibly strong Greek hero with a weak heel who threw a tantrum on a beach to his sea-nymph mom after losing his slave girl to Agamemnon. This book made me completely rethink my perspective on Achilles.

I’ve always enjoyed mythology (particularly Greek mythology) and took a few courses in Classics in university. I know who the major Greek gods are, which demigod offspring they fathered/mothered, and what stories and lessons these figures teach. My friend Mermaid Tales, who is studying Classics and knows of my love for Greek mythology, recommended this book saying that my love for the mythology alone would make me love this book.

She was right.

The Song of Achilles is a great interpretation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and takes much of it’s inspiration from Homer’s Iliad. I read the Iliad in my first year of university, so my memory on the story is a little fuzzy (and I liked The Odyssey a lot more anyways) but I remember Achilles being the focus of the story and that the class spent a lot of time focused on Patroclus’ death, Achilles grief, and what it all meant between the two. Many scholars believed that the two were in a gay relationship, but this is the first adaption I’ve read that explores it.

I enjoyed reading the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles develop because I wasn’t sure how Miller was going to do it, since this is a historical fiction novel and I wasn’t sure of the ancient Greek’s attitudes towards homosexuality. The romance between Patroclus and Achilles wasn’t love at first site but a slow build, which is rare to read of in a lot of novels. It was a slow acceptance on both characters parts to recognize the feelings each had for the other, and how they were never disgusted with how they felt for each other. Patroclus loved Achilles and Achilles loved Patroclus, it’s as simple as that.

The devotion between the two was easily felt when reading, but the most obvious example which showed their love was in Patroclus’ death.I believe it’s incredibly hard to write grief, but Miller does a fantastic job when writing Achilles grieving Patroclus. Patroclus is an incredibly small character in the Iliad but makes his presence known through his death and Achilles grief over him and how brutal Achilles becomes in battle after Patroclus’ death. I wasn’t sure how Miller was going to write his death, I thought it might be how the novel ended and was surprised to find more chapters after, but these chapters did give me an idea of how the Greek’s viewed death, burials, and the Underworld.

This novel was also the first adaption I’ve read to completely change the view of Achilles as the invincible warrior. For those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, a common story for why Achilles is so strong and talented in fighting is that when he was born his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, dipped him into the River Styx (one of the rivers in the Underworld) which made him strong. But Thetis was holding on to his heel, so that when Paris (with Apollo’s help) shot an arrow at Achilles heel he hit his weak spot and killed him. Miller completely disregards that myth, by pointing out that this view of Achilles was created after Homer’s Iliad and the Achilles of Homer’s work was not invincible but a mortal man who was just very talented at fighting.

I had a hard time getting into the novel and didn’t really like Patroclus’ narrating voice as a child, it sounded too adult. Maybe it was supposed to be like an adult looking back at childhood, but it just didn’t flow well for me or get me into the story. There are also a few things in the novel that don’t make a lot of sense but which the author has to be forgiven for because of the source material. One of these things is that Neoptolemus, Achilles son, is twelve when he goes to fight in the Trojan War but apparently looks like a man because he was raised with his grandmother and the other sea nymphs who fed him ambrosia and nectar from the gods. While this part of the story doesn’t make sense, it makes more sense than Homer’s Iliad. In the Iliad, Homer claims that Neoptolemus is already an adult by the Trojan War and scholars have calculated that by that logic Achilles and Deidamia would have had to met, married, and had their son at eight. So it definitely isn’t Miller’s fault, I just wish there was a logical way to explain it.

The Song of Achilles is a beautifully written book about love and fate, It’s a fantastic LGBTQ* read and any lover of mythology or Classics majors will love it for it’s historical accuracy and creative adaptation. I hope Miller writes more historical fiction from other Greek figures.

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