Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
This is the GIF I sent to my group chat as soon as I finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller:
Half of the tears were because of the story itself, but the other half were for the fact that I went a whole six years of my life without having read this book. The Song of Achilles tells the story of the lives of and love between Patroclus and Achilles. Considering that the Iliad, together with the Odyssey serve as what some call the foundation of the Western canon, I think that the moratorium on spoilers is functionally non-existent, but I will do my best to make this a spoiler free-review just in case.
As a classics minor and more importantly a lover of mythology, I knew the basic plot of the story before I turned the first page, but I remained emotionally unprepared for this book that does so much more than retell Iliad. As a matter of fact, the Iliadic portion of the text doesn’t even start until chapter twenty-five. The book opens with Patroclus recounting the marriage of his parents’s marriage and his own birth and childhood. In many ways, The Song of Achilles, is a coming of age story, soaked in the mythic tradition that my professors have so kindly educated me with. We follow, from Patroclus’s perspective, his journey from his place as the son of a son of Kings to be the beloved of Achilles, the best of the Greeks, and staying by his side throughout the most famous war in literary history – that of the Trojans and the Greeks.
According to the back cover of my copy, the Wall Street Journal called this book “One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory,” and I have to agree. Madeline Miller’s text has reinforced my already fierce belief that stories are meant to be told and retold. I believe that my knowledge of the Homeric tradition greatly added to my experience reading this book, as I noticed all of the subtle (and not-so-subtle!) nods to the myths I have grown to know and love, but I also strongly believe that someone with little to no familiarity with the source material would also enjoy this story.
The blossoming from friendship to love between Achilles and Patroclus is incredibly moving and quite realistic, both within the text itself and when considering its original mythic context. The two quite clearly share a close bond, but one that is not at all overdone or rushed. On a personal note, I am 100% here for literature that acknowledges and celebrates the fact that queerness is here and always has been. Beyond the representation present within The Song of Achilles, I find the cast and characters incredibly compelling and I enjoyed every second that I read through the text. I was so engaged that I read the entire book in one setting* and was hit with the “what do you mean it’s over??” feels. (See above GIF)
That is not to say that I have no criticisms of the book. While I wholly enjoyed the text and intend to read it again, I know that it is not for everyone. The text makes free and constant reference to both rape and slavery in ways that certainly unsettled my stomach. The presence of the content is not the fault of the author, but more the source material and time period. On the very first page we read of Patroclus’s who was arranged to be married to an abusive husband at age fourteen, and Patroclus tells us that his father didn’t care about her appearance because “if she was ugly, there was always slave girls and serving boys.” The text pulls no punches when referencing the treatment of women in the time period, and while Patroclus and Achilles do not themselves participate in such activities, and are uncomfortable at times, they still accept that it is a practice and do not publicly voice any concerns. Despite the fact that I read both Achilles and Patroclus as being bisexual, and thus we do have some queer representation there are class and gender issues abound within the world of The Song of Achilles and I’m not going to pretend that they don’t exist.
On the whole, I greatly recommend the book, though I issue a strong content warning for rape, slavery, gore, and the general violence that comes with close-combat warfare.
*Excluding one Hogwarts Mystery break because my phone buzzed and I realized that class was about to end and I was still 2 stars short in regard to successfully brewing my herbicide potion.
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