Monday 14 March 2022

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Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A photo of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, half on a gold, circular tray, and half on a fluffy, light grey duvet. The book is diagonal, with the top facing the top right corner of the photo, and the bottom facing the bottom left corner of the photo. Next to the book, on the right, is a small, white Venus de Milo staue.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published: 21st September 2017 | Publisher: Bloomsbury | Source: Bought
Madeline Miller’s Website

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” is everything Patroclus is not—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess—and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative connection gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper—despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men 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. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.
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Having adored Madeline Miller's Circe, I dived right into The Song of Achilles as soon as I finished. Of the two, it's the one I have owned the longest, and now how I wish I had read it when I first bought it. It's absolutely incredible.

One of the reasons I had waited to read The Song of the Achilles was because I knew women are treated horrifically by the Greek army; did I really want to read that, from a man's perspective, when so many books were being published set during the Trojan War from the women's perspectives? I read Mythos by Stephen Fry years ago, and though it doesn't focus on Troy, the amount of rape genuinely shocked me. I didn't want to put myself through that. But having read Circe, I knew wouldn't have a problem with how Miller wrote it. There is talk of rape in The Song of Achilles, but neither Achilles or Patroclus rape anyone in this story. We never see it.

Because the focus of the story isn't really on Achilles as a hero, or his role in the Trojan War. Don't get me wrong, more than half the book is set during the war, and what happens there is integral to the story - there's no way to write a story about Achilles without it being integral. But The Song of Achilles is a love story, and that's its focus. The romance between Patroclus and Achilles. It wasn't the story I was expecting at all. I knew that The Song of Achilles was an m/m story, but I didn't know Patroclus told the story, or that their relationship was the focus. But it's absolutely beautiful.

The story starts when the two are both young boys. It shows the events that lead to Patroclus being exiled from his kingdom and sent to Phthia, how he becomes Achilles' companion, and how they're relationship blossoms. Miller has an incredible way of writing young people and aging them as they live and experience things. I was surprised with how, for the majority of the novel, it felt like a young adult story. That isn't a slight of course, I love YA. But I had assumed it would feel similarly to adult high fantasy that has teenage protagonists; there's a very different tone. There was me worrying originally that Miller's books might be too literary for my tastes, and The Song of Achilles feels a lot like the majority of the books I read. Because she writes teenagers, and first love, so well. The joy they find in each other and their relationship is just so pure and joyous! They're both such good boys, too. Because they are still boys when the Trojan War starts; they might have been considered adults at the time, they are still so young. And they have good hearts, and just wonderful. I adored them.

But then the war does start, and that's where things changed for me. I know the story of the Trojan War; I know how this story ends for Achilles and Patroclus, I knew what was coming. Watching it come was devastating and heartbreaking, knowing what would happen to these two boys I loved. They know the prophecy; if Achilles goes to Troy, he will not return. However, if he doesn't, he will grow old, but he will have no fame or glory. He chooses fame and glory, and slowly but surely, he starts to change. Knowing he will not survive the war with Troy, Achilles' honour becomes everything. He thirsts for fame, admiration, for the pride and excitement he feels in his skill in killing others, the glory it brings him. He starts to become someone I don't really like.

The good, soft boy is still there, underneath it all. During the raids on the towns surrounding Troy, women are captured. They are will become bed-slaves to the generals of the Greek army, claimed as prizes. Being gay, Achilles and Patroclus have no interest in bed-slaves; however, Patroclus cannot bear knowing what will happen to these women, and pleads with Achilles to claim as many as he can, so they are safe. My love for them both soared, though I did notice that this was Patroclus' idea, and that Achilles did it for him. He doesn't care quite as much as Patroclus. When Agamemnon insults and disrespects him by taking Briseis, the first woman they saved from the others, one who has become close to Patroclus, Achilles rages. Not for Briseis, and what will happen to her, but for the insult to him. But Agamemnon has overstepped a line that no-one - the soliders or the gods - will ignore, and so Achilles is happy to let Agamemnon rape Briseis, because once he does, all hell will rain down upon him. But Patroclus isn't the hero. There is no fame or glory for him, and his honour doesn't matter much when it comes to those he loves, and he loves Briseis. The good at the heart of Achilles is buried underneath the legacy of his legend that he so desperately wants. And it's absolutely heartbreaking to see how Achilles changes effects Patroclus. Their romance was so pure, so beautiful, but now Achilles' glory and honour gets in the way.

The Song of Achilles is beautiful, heartbreaking, devastating, but undeniably stunning story, one that is so full of love and hope. I adored Circe, but I love The Song of Achilles so much more. This book broke and healed my heart, and I can see why so many love it so much. I will absolutely read anything Miller writes in future; she's found herself a place among my favourite authors.

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