Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

About the Book

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 companionship 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’s mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale 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.

Published by Bloomsbury


"Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.”

Let’s get one thing straight before we even begin – I am not a fan of historical fiction. Had this book not been recommended to me by someone with a passion for good books, I would probably never have read it. This is sad, really, because it is an astonishing debut.

The Song of Achilles is not so much a retelling of the mythological events surrounding Achilles in ancient Greece, as it is a magnified lens on one of his most intimate relationships. The tale is told from quite an original perspective, which is a striking effort for a debut author. It is, in fact, more about Patroclus than Achilles. Patroclus (who tells the story in first person) is a young prince who does not have the benefit of being strong, athletic, or particularly skilful in any area. As a result, he is not very popular with his peers and certainly not with his father. Circumstances contrive to cause him to be exiled from his father’s kingdom and he finds himself crossing paths with the handsome Achilles.

Patroclus is quite taken with this dashing young hero – everything a prince should be, including having the benefit of a goddess for a mother. Achilles is exceptionally fast and no one can defeat him in battle. His people admire him and follow him blindly. In his presence, no one can resist his magnetic influence. He takes a special interest in the shamed Patroclus, and before long, they are sworn companions and loyal friends. The story encompasses magical elements, enticing the reader with characters such as the centaur Chiron who becomes responsible for the boys’ studies; and dark prophecies which even the best heroes cannot escape. Gods and goddesses regularly feature, particularly Thetis, mother of Achilles. Her continuous appearances cause Patroclus great consternation, especially when his relationship with Achilles shifts from friend to lover.

Do not think that Madeline Miller has taken complete liberty with the storyline here. Miller herself is a classics scholar who has a BA and MA in Latin and Ancient Greek. In ancient times, many men had slave boys for lovers – this could often continue even when the man married a woman. So the author is certainly not asking us to take a leap of faith in sketching a gay relationship between our two protagonists.

The book is ultimately about love. The lack thereof between a father and his son; the unfathomable bond between an immortal goddess and her son; the love of a husband for his wife resulting in an epic war; the narcissistic longing of Achilles for unending glory and fame; and above all, the immense and enduring feelings Patroclus and Achilles share with each other. The latter causes Patroclus no end of joy and pain – his desire to be at Achilles’ side always, means that he too must march to war and have his faith in that love tested repeatedly whilst risking everything.

I find that The Song of Achilles poses intriguing questions – how far will you go for love; and where will you stop? How important is honour compared to fame? Is fame more enduring than love? If having one means sacrificing the other, which one would you choose? Should you even choose? Perhaps the passage which best illustrates this novel comes during the time of the Trojan War when Achilles says:

“They should hate Agamemnon. It is his pride that kills them.”
And yours. But I know the look on his face, the dark recklessness of his eyes. He will not yield. He does not know how. I have lived eighteen years with him, and he has never backed down, never lost. What will happen if he is forced to? I am afraid for him, and for me, and for all of us.”

Miller has crafted a superb debut which should be recognised for its bold viewpoints, the sweeping storyline reminiscent of a modern Iliad, and the easy but compelling narrative. "Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade.” So says one of the characters in The Song of Achilles. Let us hope that the author gains glory for her work sooner rather than later.

- Review by Bradley Lutz
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About the Author

Madeline Miller has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek, and has been teaching both for the past nine years. She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales to a modern audience. The Song of Achilles is her first novel, published by Bloomsbury in September 2011.


Shelagh said...

This book looks especially promising (despite the fact that I am also not much of a historical fiction reader) and after this review I am especially keen to give it a try!

The Word Fiend

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