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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Updated: 4 days ago

If you’ve read the Iliad, and I know some of you have, you are going to enjoy this book. I can say that unreservedly. This is not Cliff Notes for the Iliad. If you haven’t read the Iliad you are also going to enjoy this book, because Madeline Miller has achieved a thoroughly contemporary story of the Trojan War and the years leading up to it, while placing you firmly amongst ancient Greeks.

The Song of Achilles is written from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’ beloved companion who was slain by Hector on the battlefield. There’s no issue with spoilers here. Achilles’ doom is foretold and although the characters don’t know exactly how fate will play out the reader probably does. Patroclus, a minor character in the Iliad, almost a plot device, is such a significant character in Madeline Miller’s version that the book could have been called The Song of Patroclus.

This is a modern novel, not a re-telling of the Iliad; character development and relationships are at its core. Patroclus and Achilles are lovers. Achilles is half god, half human. Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, is a scary hyper-controlling parent. Chiron, the boys’ tutor, is a centaur. And that’s perfectly fine. He’s a character. In the Iliad the gods intervene in human lives with breathtakingly casual arrogance. In The Song of Achilles they are part of the fabric of the world.

The interweaving of the known story with the reader’s expectations about the story is masterful, and all done in Patroclus’ voice.

‘ “I thought you said it would be an easy campaign, home by next fall,” I managed. I had to do something to stop the relentless roll of their words.

“I lied.” Odysseus shrugged.’

And this:

‘He put on his best singer’s falsetto, “A thousand ships have sailed for her.”

A thousand was the number Agamemnon’s bards had started using, one thousand, one hundred and eighty-six didn’t fit well in a line of verse.’

Most of the book is not the Trojan War, it is the boy’s lives before the war, but some of it is, so if you are wondering how the violence is handled the answer is with immediacy and speed, but without the seemingly endless, anatomically detailed, descriptions of the many ways a bronze age weapon could penetrate a human body that you find in the Iliad. Madeline Miller has only a few lines like that, but they are enough to put you on the battlefield.

In the author’s own words: ‘I will say that at some point a friend of mine – let’s be honest an ex-boyfriend – referred to the story as “Homeric fan fiction.” That was fairly dampening. But I decided: so be it. If it’s fan fiction, it’s fan fiction. I’m still going to write it.’

If it’s fan fiction, so be it. It’s amazingly good fan fiction.

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