The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was one of those books that people on tumblr kept posting about and their raving reviews, along with the fact that it’s a retelling of Greek mythology, convinced me to read it. I guess the moral of the story is: don’t let good fan art get your hopes up, and when people say a book killed them, ripped their heart out, etc., they’re probably exaggerating. Still, for a book that doesn’t live up to its hype, it’s pretty good.
This review contains spoilers for the Iliad – if you’re familiar with the myth, but haven’t read the book, you can read this review without any problems.
Goodreads synopsis: 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 difference, 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’ 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.
My rating: 3 stars.
With every retelling of Greek mythology I read, I promise myself to stay open minded and not get upset when the author’s interpretation is different from my own. Which is why I didn’t mind the fact that Patroclus and Achilles are the same age, with Achilles being several months older. I prefer the interpretation found on many paintings on ancient Greek pottery that Patroclus is the older one – he is often depicted with a beard, while Achilles is not. This is only a minor thing, and it didn’t make the story any worse. In fact, for the most part, I enjoyed the story. At some points it’s a little too dreamy for my taste, but I understand why it made so many people so emotional.
As the story reached its climax, however, more things started bugging me. One of them is the fact that Agamemnon is a terrible person and Achilles is pretty much perfect, if a little hot-tempered. In a modern interpretation of a very old myth, I expect more nuance, not less. While in the Iliad it’s clear that Agamemnon is doing something wrong, it’s possible to see his side of the story, and Achilles’ response is outrageous and selfish, no matter whose side your on. While Achilles’ selfishness is still part of the story in The Song of Achilles, it’s made into less of a problem by turning Agamemnon into a classic villain.
I really could not get over the fact how perfect Achilles is. Sure, the story is told from the eyes of his lover, and there is some conflict between them, but all in all he is the perfect hero. Contrast this to the Iliad: yes, Achilles is the best of the Greeks, but he’s also a selfish crybaby, to put it bluntly. On top of that, Patroclus himself is made even more perfect. He doesn’t even know how to fight – the first time he ever truly fights in the war is when he puts on Achilles’ armour to help the Greeks against the Trojans, pushing them back all the way to their city, where he is ultimately killed. Now, aside from the fact that he’s killed, this is a superhuman feat, and even with the help of the gods, I think it’s very unrealistic for him to do that without ever having fought in the war (except for the one time he went along and did nothing at all except being protected by Achilles).
Then, if you think I’m exaggerating how perfect Achilles and Patroclus are in this book, there’s the fact that instead of Achilles sleeping with Briseis, Miller has him save her and a bunch of other women. He claims them as his spoils of war, but then has them live in his camp in relative freedom, protecting them from being mistreated. Apparently Achilles is the only good guy in the whole army (except maybe Odysseus, who is morally questionable but at least he’s bragging about his wife all the time instead of raping slave girls). There’s another reason why this irked me, and that’s the dismissal of the possibility that Achilles is bisexual. While ‘bisexuality’ is an anachronistic term in this respect, it’s not strange to assume Achilles was attracted to both men and women. In fact, if you read the Iliad it’s clear he’s into women, and though it’s not literally mentioned in the story, it was widely accepted that Patroclus was Achilles’ lover. Making Achilles gay comes close to bi erasure in my eyes.
It feels like Madeline Miller wanted to be true to the myth and the time period, while at the same time having her characters be likeable. Patroclus doesn’t fight, Achilles never touched Briseis, and the reader falls in love with Achilles just as Patroclus does and cries about the tragic love story. The thing is, I already cried about the tragic love story while reading the Iliad. In fact, I cried more. Characters don’t have to be perfect or almost perfect for the reader to relate to them or care about them. Let your characters have flaws.
Now I’ve gone into what I didn’t like about this book in great length; let me end on a positive note. The flaws in this book are most likely to be noticed by a mythology nerd like me – if you haven’t read the Iliad, I think you’ll enjoy this book. I enjoyed it, despite its flaws, and the ending – the ending was so good.