Published: 20th September 2011
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Trigger warnings: Sexual content, allusions to rape
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.
But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
The story of the Trojan War is one of the greatest and most epic to ever have been told. Teeming with tragedy and blood and vengeance, all overseen by the watchful eyes of the gods, it is documented in the ancient writings of Homer’s Iliad. The tale is synonymous with Greek myth, and will never cease to be fascinating.
In The Song Of Achilles, Madeline Miller takes that mythology and creates a spellbinding story of her own, using an altogether unique angle and an elegant style of writing to present it to a modern audience. Told with the utmost knowledge and refinement, it is easy to see why it has won several awards and received great praise.
Even if you are not familiar with the Trojan War and its events, this book is ideal for any reader to pick up. I had limited knowledge, and the further I proceeded into the story, the more I connected with it – and I learned so much! That made the reading experience all the more memorable for me.
The story here is told entirely from the first person perspective of Patroclus, a young prince who is soon exiled for accidentally killing another boy. He is sent to the kingdom of Phthia, where he meets and becomes attracted to the infamous Achilles; the son of king Peleus and foretold to become the greatest of all Greek warriors.
They soon become inseparable, and Achilles makes Patroclus his lifelong companion. Their romance is the heartbeat of the book, and it continues to be the overarching theme even once the war is in full flow and the fate of the protagonists begins to loom large. While time passes and events take place within the story, it never veers fully away from the relationship between these two characters, the complexity of which is brilliantly captured.
What makes this so effective is that Patroclus is an absorbing narrator. He is likeable and conscientious, and Madeline Miller gives a voice that made me sense almost all of his thoughts and emotions as I read along with him. The love he feels for Achilles, the insecurities he feels, and the desire to turn a blind eye to his companion’s flaws, all jump right out of the page.
I was so impressed by how each of the characters were portrayed, and it was easy to distinguish between them, something I was slightly worried about in the beginning. Achilles is the most intriguing of them all, and everything he said and did seemed to carry great meaning. It was also noticeable how much he changed as a person during the book’s 20-year time frame, another aspect where the writing shines through.
However, the most impressive thing for me is that although the characters generally follow the same path as told in the Iliad and other ancient texts, here they are given an excellent amount of depth and each individual scene is constructed in an innovative, thoughtful way that brings the story to life. In doing so, it makes it even more compelling.
The writing starts off very good. From the first page it felt engaging and sometimes poetic. But as the book progresses, the writing just gets better and better, especially during the Trojan War and the events that take place towards the end. The metaphors become all the more profound, and I was hanging on every word.
As mentioned earlier, the way Madeline Miller has made the story so accessible has left an impact on me as a reader. She has done it so skilfully, and at the same time written something that was very easy to profoundly connect with, so I now cannot wait to read Circe, which has received even higher praise!
To finish, this was a brilliantly written book, and a splendid portrayal of the much hinted at romance between Achilles and Patroclus. The few problems I did have were extremely minor, and take nothing away from the overall quality of the storytelling. It was memorable, and I am so glad I finally decided to read it.
Raised in New York City and Philadelphia, Madeline Miller attended Brown University and gained a degree in Classics before moving on to teaching, a profession she has now worked in for over fifteen years.
Specialising in adapting ancient and mythical texts for a modern audience, she achieved widespread success upon the release of The Song Of Achilles in 2011. It gained numerous awards including the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.
Her second novel, Circe, did not arrive until 2018, but if anything that has achieved even more acclaim. It won the Goodreads book of the year and is set to be adapted for television by HBO.
An astonishingly good book, with excellent writing that is both descriptive and sensual, carried by a compelling narrator. It will live forever in the memory.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐