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The Song of Achilles: A Novel Paperback – August 28, 2012
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A New York Times Bestseller
“At once a scholar’s homage to The Iliad and startlingly original work of art….A book I could not put down.” —Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House
A thrilling, profoundly moving, and utterly unique retelling of the legend of Achilles and the Trojan War from the bestselling author of Circe
A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, Miller’s monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights—and fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.
“A captivating retelling of The Iliad and events leading up to it through the point of view of Patroclus: it’s a hard book to put down, and any classicist will be enthralled by her characterisation of the goddess Thetis, which carries the true savagery and chill of antiquity.” — Donna Tartt, The Times
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“Fast, true and incredibly rewarding…A remarkable achievement.” — USA Today
“Wildly romantic [and] surprisingly suspenseful....[B]ringing those dark figures back to life, making them men again, and while she’s at it, us[ing] her passionate companion piece to The Iliad as a subtle swipe at today’s ongoing debate over gay marriage. Talk about updating the classics.” — Time magazine
“One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory, and it offers strikingly well-rounded and compassionate portrait of Achilles....[Miller] injects a newfound sense of suspense into a story with an ending that has already been determined.” — Wall Street Journal
“Powerful, inventive, passionate, and beautifully written. ” — Boston Globe
“Beautifully done. . ..In prose as clean and spare as the driving poetry of Homer, Miller captures the intensity and devotion of adolescent friendship and lets us believe in these long-dead boys...deepening and enriching a tale that has been told for 3,000 years.” — Washington Post
“One of 2012’s most exciting debuts...seductive, hugely entertaining....[I]magining the intimate friendship between Achilles and the devoted Patroclus...Miller conjures...soulmates. The resulting novel is cinematic―one might say epic―in scope, but refreshingly, compellingly human in detail.” — Vogue
“You don’t need to be familiar with Homer’s The Iliad (or Brad Pitt’s Troy, for that matter) to find Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles spellbinding....her explorations of ego, grief, and love’s many permutations are both familiar and new....[A] timeless love story.” — O magazine
“Madeline Miller’s brilliant first novel...is a story of great, passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus....[R]ewriting the Western world’s first and greatest war novel is an awesome task to undertake. That she did it with such grace, style and suspense is astonishing.” — Dallas Morning News
“The Song of Achilles...should be read and enjoyed for itself, but if Madeline Miller’s novel sends the reader back to Homer and his successors, she is to be thanked for that as well.” — Washington Independent Review of Books
“A psychologically astute Iliad prelude featuring the heady, star-crossed adolescence of future heroes Patroclus and Achilles.” — Vogue
“[Miller] makes a persuasive argument for the timeliness of her subject. …Miller’s winning debut focuses on Patroclus, a young prince living in Achilles’ golden shadow. Miller also gives voice to many of the women who were also consigned to the shadows.” — Publishers Weekly, Spring 2012 Preview, Top 10 Literary Fiction
“Masterfully brings to life an imaginative yet informed vision of ancient Greece featuring divinely human gods and larger-than-life mortals. She breaks new ground retelling one of the world’s oldest stories about men in love and war [and] extraordinary women.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review), Pick of the Week
“A masterly vision of the drama, valor, and tragedy of the Trojan War. Readers who loved Mary Renault’s epic novels will be thrilled with Miller’s portrayal of ancient Greece. This reviewer can’t wait to see what she writes next.” — Library Journal (starred review)
“A captivating retelling of THE ILIAD and events leading up to it through the point of view of Patroclus: it’s a hard book to put down, and any classicist will be enthralled by her characterisation of the goddess Thetis, which carries the true savagery and chill of antiquity.” — Donna Tartt, THE TIMES
“A modern take on The Iliad, full of love and feats of glory and told in an open, lyric, loose-limbed fashion that should appeal to many readers.... Next up from Miller―the story of Circe...historical fiction fans, get in on the ground floor.” — Library Journal
“I loved this book. The language was timeless, the historical details were slipped in perfectly. I hope SONG OF ACHILLES becomes part of the high school summer reading lists alongside PENELOPIAD.” — Helen Simonson, bestselling author of MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND
“Mary Renault lives again! A ravishingly vivid and convincing version of one of the most legendary of love stories.” — Emma Donoghue, New York Times bestselling author of ROOM
“At once a scholar’s homage to THE ILIAD and a startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist. Madeline Miller has given us her own fresh take on the Trojan war and its heroes. The result is a book I could not put down.” — Ann Patchett, bestselling author of BEL CANTO and STATE OF WONDER
“Although the details of the story are Miller’s own, the world is one that all who love the Iliad and its epigones will recognize. Reading this book recalled me to the breathless sense of the ancient-yet-present that I felt when I first fell in love with the classics.” — Catherine Conybeare, Professor of Classics, Bryn Mawr College
“THE ILIAD turns on Achilles’ pride and his relationship with Patroclus, but Homer is sparing with the personal―so much so that, though we believe in their friendship, we do not understand it. THE SONG OF ACHILLES brings light to their love. This is a beautiful book.” — Zachary Mason, author of THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY
“Miller somehow (and breathtakingly so) mixes high-action commercial plotting with writing of such beautiful delicacy you sometimes have to stop and stare.” — The Independent
“Miller’s prose is more poetic than almost any translation of Homer… This is a deeply affecting version of the Achilles story: a fully three-dimension man - a son, a father, husband and lover - now exists where a superhero previously stood and fought.” — The Guardian
“In the tradition of Mary Renault... Miller draws on her knowledge of classical sources wisely… Well-paced, engaging and tasteful.” — London Times Literary Supplement
“Extraordinary… Beautifully descriptive and heartachingly lyrical, this is a love story as sensitive and intuitive as any you will find.” — Daily Mail
From the Back Cover
Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful— irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes 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, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
- Publisher : Ecco; 37696th edition (August 28, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 416 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062060627
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062060624
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.96 x 5.38 x 7.82 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on June 11, 2020
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First, I think it’s important to mention that The Iliad is my favorite book, so my connection to the characters and this story is much deeper than most. I read The Iliad in 2001 and have since been obsessed with all things Greek mythology as well as anything related to the Trojan War. I’ve read The Iliad a total of six times in its entirety, so when I read The Song of Achilles, a work of historical fiction based on the book, I was completely blow away. I can’t remember the last time I stared at the last page of a novel and felt that satisfied.
I recently wrote a post about The Iliad if you want to learn more about the original and the modern-day spin I added to it. We read The Song of Achilles as our Book of the Month for Hype or Like Friday, a Goodreads group I co-created with Britt and Larkin, and I’m looking forward to reading the reviews. If you’re a member of the group or have reviewed this book in the past, feel free to share the link to your review in the comments.
I often switch up my review style, and I’ve decided to break the novel into 5 categories: Writing, Characters, Plot, Historical Accuracy, and Themes.
Note: If you haven’t read The Iliad or are unaware of the history/mythology surrounding the Trojan War, then consider this your warning that there are major spoilers below that explain both The Iliad and The Song of Achilles in great detail.
Madeline Miller’s prose is so beautiful I was instantly drawn into this novel from the first page. It’s really brilliant, and that’s a word I’ve only used to describe Stephen King’s prose, so that actually means something to me in terms of quality. I’m impressed with very few authors’ writing style, which made this book unputdownable for me.
I didn’t realize until after I read the novel that Miller studied and teaches classic literature, and it really shines through. The Song of Achilles is so well written I couldn’t believe this was her first novel. I avoided this one for a while because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to my favorite book. I never thought a re-telling could do Homer justice, but this book knocked it out of the park.
Choosing Patroclus as the narrator of this story was a BRILLIANT idea! My first thought was how can Patroclus narrate from first person POV when his death is what drives Achilles to kill Hector in a fit of rage, knowing it will lead to his own death? I don’t think this counts as a spoiler considering The Iliad is over three thousand years old and most people know the story of Achilles by now. And that’s not even the most important aspect of this book.
I’ve always loved Patroclus and Achilles together. They are The Iliad, at least they are for me. Homer never mentions they’re lovers in his work, but some historians believe the reason Achilles was so distraught over Patroclus’ death was because they were in a relationship. His pain would’ve been real whether they were friends or lovers. Who wouldn’t mourn the loss of their best friend, someone they grew up with? But that’s the spin Miller takes on my favorite classic that really intrigued me.
My other favorite character is Briseis, who we later meet during the Trojan War when King Agamemnon holds her captive. The Iliad starts off with Achilles fighting with Agamemnon over Briseis. It plays out almost the same but a bit different in this book. Regardless of the representation, we still get the same gist that the trio spent years living together, which is another part of The Iliad and this book I really liked.
“She is in Agamemnon’s custody, but she is Achilles’ prize still. To violate her is a violation of Achilles himself, the gravest insult to his honor. Achilles could kill him for it, and even Menelaus would call it fair.”
Achilles is such a tough, strong-willed character that overpowers Patroclus’ more sensitive side, but the two of them work so well together. When Achilles is about to go off the rails, it’s always Patroclus that can rein him in.
Patroclus was a prince, exiled and sent to live at King Peleus’ court. Achilles’ father wasn’t keen on Patroclus and Achilles’ friendship because he was no longer a prince, but Achilles chose him and that was all that mattered. Everyone listened to what the prince said, and when Achilles speaks in the book, I really felt the power behind his words. His arrogance and air of entitlement can be an issue with some readers, but I see his character from a completely different perspective than most.
I like that Miller starts off with Patroclus at age five, drawing you into the world of Achilles, the handsome demi-god with skills that would’ve made every Greek jealous except Patroclus. He admired Achilles, loved him from a distance for years until one day they kissed and the rest is history.
When Helen of Sparta, later known as Helen of Troy, is allegedly kidnapped and taken to Troy this prompts Achilles’ need to fight. In The Iliad, Aphrodite promises Paris, Prince of Troy, a beautiful woman, and Helen was considered one of the most beautiful women of that time. This is not shown in the novel, but I thought I’d mention it to give you some context. The entire war and story is set in motion by Helen and Paris’ relationship that angers her husband Menelaus, who convinces his brother King Agamemnon to go to war.
“Yet this beautiful spear had been fashioned not in bitterness, but love. Its shape would fit no one’s hand but Achilles’, and its heft could suit no one’s strength but his. And though the point was keen and deadly, the wood itself slipped under our fingers like the slender oiled strut of a lyre.”
Slight Confession: I shed a few tears at Patroclus’ death. I cry every time I read The Iliad because it’s so powerful and emotionally draining to read and feel Achilles’ pain over his friend, and in this story, his lover. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that I absolutely loved the conclusion to Patroclus and Achilles’ story.
The Historical Accuracy…
Everything from Odysseus’ search for Achilles in a foreign court to the divine intervention from the gods was completely accurate. We see Apollo help Paris shoot the arrow that leads to Achilles’ death. He tells him that Achilles might be part god but he’s also man and even gods can be killed. I was afraid this book would take liberties with history. I was thoroughly pleased that did not happen here. While some things were not exactly the same, it was spot on for the most part, which made me smile every time I read another part that lived up to what I’d hoped. I had so many expectations before I opened the book on my Kindle, and I’m thrilled that I can Rave over The Song of Achilles for all the right reasons.
There are five recurring themes in The Iliad that are also presented in this novel.
Achilles knows his destiny is to be the best fighter to ever live, and when his mother Thetis, a sea goddess, tells him he will die if he goes to Troy, he chooses fame and glory over homecoming. He was raised with the assumption he would be the greatest warrior the Greeks had ever seen. While this is true, his pride is a problem that starts to wear on the Greek companies in Troy after Achilles is unable to come to a truce with Agamemnon.
The last of her fire was gone; only marble remained. “It is true. But there is more, and worse that he has not said.” The words came tonelessly, as a statue would speak them. “If you go to Troy, you will never return. You will die a young man there.” Achilles’ face went pale. “It is certain?” This is what all mortals ask first, in disbelief, shock, fear. Is there no exception for me? “It is certain.”
We see homecoming after the war in the Odyssey with Odysseus, but fate is determined by the Fates themselves, the spinners of life and death. Achilles’ mother pleads with the gods to save her son, but his fate was already set and unavoidable.
Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
Another important theme is the concept of honor. Achilles goes to Troy because he knows it’s the honorable thing to do. He also fights with Agamemnon over Briseis because he believes that the king is a dishonorable man and by taking his war prize, who later becomes his friend, he’s showing Achilles a lack of respect and therefore has not earned his in return.
The Wrath of Achilles is the most notable theme of The Iliad. His anger for Agamemnon is present from the beginning of the book until the bitter end, and his anger over Patroclus’ death only intensifies that fury that he’s waited to unleash. He tears through Trojans like they’re nothing, ripping apart their best fighters until he finally gets the chance to make Hector, Prince of Troy and best of the Trojans, suffer for what he did to his friend.
Hector’s eyes are wide, but he will run no longer. He says, “Grant me this. Give my body to my family, when you have killed me.”
Achilles makes a sound like choking. “There are no bargains between lions and men. I will kill you and eat you raw.” His spearpoint flies in a dark whirlwind, bright as the evening-star, to catch the hollow at Hector’s throat.
The one thing I really liked about The Iliad is that we saw a great deal of Hector. We saw very little of Hector in The Song of Achilles, and I suppose that’s because of the first person narration by Patroclus. There’s so many wonderful quotes I would’ve loved to have read from The Iliad that perfectly capture the words spoken between Hector and Achilles. Hector and Achilles are such a great match for each other because they both want the fame and glory that comes with death, and I really liked Hector in The Iliad. I only wish I would’ve seen more of him in this story.
This may either tie or beat Red Rising for the longest review I’ve ever written. I hope this all makes sense and doesn’t come off as a Greek lit fangirl ramble.
Exiled Prince, Patroclus, meets Achilles when he is sent to live with King Peleus. Achilles is the son of Peleus and the Sea Nymph, Thetis. Achilles is confident, handsome, fearless, not to mention destined for great things. Clumsy, awkward and shy, Patroclus is everything that Achilles is not. So, when Achilles picks Patroclus as his companion, everyone is shocked and dismayed. Soon we are allowed to follow their growing relationship from young boys to grown men, and from friends to lovers.
Eventually, they are sent to train with Chiron (half horse/half man/Centaur) until Achilles (commanded by his mother) is sent into hiding (as a woman) in another kingdom. There he secretly marries the princess and sires a child. Patroclus finds him and they are dispatched to fight in the war (Paris has taken Helen to Troy and won’t return her). This is Achilles’ opportunity to show and prove his greatness. They toll for 10 years (even overcoming a plague) outside the gates of Troy. And then, following an affront to his reputation (the greedy King Agamemnon attempted to claim one of his possessions, Briseis, who he only saved to appease Patroclus), Achilles refuses to fight until he gets an apology, although this will mean several of his people will die. Without their greatest warrior, they are doomed. Patroclus tries to reason with Achilles but to no avail. So, in an attempt to make things better (amongst the men), restore Achilles reputation and help win the war, Patroclus sets out on a fool’s errand to attack the gates of Troy. Unfortunately, he is killed by Hector (Achilles arch enemy). Grieving (and dealing with a lot of guilt), Achilles sets out to avenge Patroclus’ death. He will stop at nothing until he gets his revenge by killing Hector. And while he achieves his goals, he too is killed (by Paris, with the help of Apollo).
What I liked:
1. While you may think that Achilles is the hero or what the story is about, it is really about Patroclus, who loved him unconditionally regardless of his flaws. Yes, Achilles was beautiful, musically talented (lyre) and a skilled warrior, but he was also aloof and at times difficult. And while Patroclus saw his shortcomings, he loved him in spite of them. Eventually even giving his life to make sure that Achilles remained whole.
2. The dynamic between Achilles, his mother (Thetis) and Patroclus. While Thetis never thought Patroclus was good enough for her son and never understood their love, it is his telling their life stories and their mutual love that in the end softened her outer shell (ok, kind-of). She came to understand that Patroclus loved her son.
3. Briseis’ story. Her words of love to Patroclus and her willingness to stay with him forever, even if that meant sharing him with Achilles was simply beautiful. Not to mention, in the end she died on her own terms, refusing to be claimed (by Agamemnon) or enslaved again.
4. Achilles’ rage. I could imagine what Achilles was feeling as he circled the gates of Troy dragging Hector’s body behind him. I understood his grief and sympathized when he refused to give Priam his son, Hector’s remains. And I could visualize Achilles leaning over and caring for Patroclus’ remains, hoping that he would awaken or be resurrected.
5. Achilles’ death. It was beautifully written. “He turns his head a little, as if to watch it come. He closes his eyes and feels its point push through his skin, parting thick muscle, warming its way past the interlacing fingers of his ribs.” Once he avenged the death of the person he loved, he had nothing really to live for. He did not want to live in a world without his soulmate.
I am undecided about:
1. The hasty conclusion. I would have liked to really see more of Pyrrhus’ reign. I did find it ironic that unlike Achilles (who was reared by his mortal father and Chiron), his son, Pyrrhus was allowed to grow and develop under Thetis. She believed that Achilles humanness made him vulnerable, so I was curious to see did this opportunity to raise another version of Achilles make a difference. Pyrrhus, while a great warrior and strategist, was cold, entitled, selfish and mean. The opposite of Achilles, who while aloof, was able to love, and yet they both had the same fate. Neither was fated to live forever. Ironically, Achilles’ son died for the same affront (claiming or taking a woman) that caused Achilles to stop fighting.
In conclusion, I only touched on a few things from the book in this review. But be assured, there is a lot that made this a fascinating read. There was romance, treachery, war, passion (because there is a difference between romance and passion), tragedy and good old Greek mythology. What else do you need? 4.5 stars
The story itself- I SOBBED while finishing it, which was very embarrassing as a 20 something on a vacation with family. I had to stop myself from immediately re-reading. Fantastic book
Top reviews from other countries
The Song of Achilles is a retelling, one which takes the myth and runs with it. Here Achilles really is the son of a sea nymph, he is trained by a centaur, and gods play their part in the lives of man.
I used to know my Classics a lot better that I do now - Roger Lancelyn Green’s books were a staple of my childhood library - so this was a book which unfolded for me. I remembered each plot point as we hit it, so I’m entirely the wrong person to ask if it makes any logical sense. It probably doesn’t. It certainly could have done a better job of selling ancient motivations to a modern audience.
The story is told by Patroclus, a prince and, when he begins this story, unlikely candidate for Helen’s hand in marriage. I am super here for a room full of men deciding what will happen to a teenage girl, as you can imagine. This is a male story, though, and Miller doesn’t attempt to change that.
However, when Patroclus inadvertently kills another boy, he is exiled to the court of Peleus where he falls swooningly in love with Mary Sue Achilles, who’s super perfect at everything (as one expects from a demi-god). Thetis, Achilles’ mother, really hates Patroclus. The boys go off to learn things on a mountain. They are swoonily swoony. They come back. Thetis hates Patroclus. Then she hides Achilles because she doesn’t want him to go to Troy as he will be killed.
Once the war actually begins, a good half way through the book, things improve, in part because there’s actually things happening. There is air of inexorability to the whole thing which really gets into its stride in the last third as we make the drive towards what is fated to happen (and we’re no longer reading rambling scenes about how swoony teenage Achilles is).
When Miller hits the predetermined narrative events, she’s good. When she’s making her own way between, she’s… less good.
For a book which treats the gods as real, there’s an awful lot of “something’s happening because the gods are displeased” conversations, followed by “here’s the solution to that” conversations. Obviously there’s no one correct version of many of the myths, but sometimes Miller takes the path of most boredom, such as the demand for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Apollo’s appearance on the walls of Troy especially charmed me, so the omission of the gods involvement in other ways, even as a background, felt disappointing.
I am also critical of the characterisation. Odysseus is great, true, but everybody else? Eh.
Achilles lives his whole life chained to the prophecies made about him, but whatever this does to him remains unexplored. He’s just some guy. Admittedly one who is super good at everything and jolly good looking. And when we’re reading the narrative of a boy, then man, who is in love with him, I’d really have preferred to grasp the appeal.
Thetis is especially poorly done. Like her son she is chained to the pronouncements of the Fates, but here she is a pure JustNoMil. She’s such a central figure in the original myth - the Trojan war begins because of a prophecy made about her: the son of Thetis will be greater than his father, hence “marriage” to Peleus, hence somebody not doing the invitations right, hence golden apple etc etc etc
I was also unreasonably annoyed that Miller chooses to not use the one thing everybody knows about our demi-god: that he really should have invested in some foot armour. Google assures me Homer doesn’t include the story of Thetis’s attempt to make her son invulnerable and immortal, but Homer doesn’t include Achilles’ death, either. Or the romantic relationship between him and Patroclus. It felt like a massive oversight rather than a deliberate decision.
The beginning was interesting if not grippy. Then it got a bit dull. Then a bit duller. Then, by the end, it was very good indeed. I don’t rule out reading Circe, Miller’s second full length novel, but I could just as easily not. Overall?
She's managed to take everything we know of the story from the existing texts and build a world that is thoroughly absorbing and beautiful. It's a story of epic soul binding love, so beautifully rendered.
I really enjoyed how there was no modern lens put onto the story. She just tells it. Ideas and concepts that mean something to us would have been meaningless to the ancients, and behaviours we find unacceptable were normal. So some bits are difficult, there's human sacrifice, and slavery including sexual slavery, but nothing is gratuitous or too graphic.
Just read it it's beautiful.
I actually loved it. This is a beautifully-written, very descriptive book. It was easy to read, and a real page turner. I felt that I learned a lot about ancient Greece and the Trojan war. I can't fully remember the story of Achilles from school (it has been erased from my memory, along with Jason and the Argonauts, and the Minotaur) but I loved this re-telling and couldn't put the book down. The simple, striking cover is beautiful too and I would thoroughly recommend this book. A wonderful read.
Does this count as historical, or mythological, or pure fantasy? Don't care - brilliant, brilliant book. It was positively painful to read it if I'm honest but I couldn't put it down. One of those books that I felt a true and consuming sense of loss for a few days after reading it. Recommended to EVERYONE.