Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on October 3, 2016
Originally posted on my blog at https://rantandraveaboutbooks.com/2016/07/29/the-song-of-achilles-fate-fury-and-friendship-make-for-a-rave-review/
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.