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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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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 differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bon 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 fulfil his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years to follow will test everything they hold dear.

 

The Song of Achilles was a book I was wary to even touch. I did Classical Civilisations at A Level and because of this I like anything referring to classical literature to be somewhat accurate. I can’t watch Disney’s Hercules thanks to this and whilst O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a great film but I couldn’t shake off the fact that it was too loosely based on the Odyssey. So when I saw that Madeline Miller BA and MA in Latin and Ancient Greek I thought I should give it a go.

 

To my pleasant surprise I found that the novel is actually fairly accurate to the original Homeric epics. Events, for the most part, take place how and when they should. Some liberties are taken with the story, such as Patroclus’ back story being tweaked, but this is artistic license that I can completely understand.

 

You see, Patroclus doesn’t really have much written about him. He’s mostly known just because of Achilles and that is all, whilst Achilles has more tales about him prior to Troy. Miller uses this well and uses his story to generate sympathy for the character, who has had a difficult childhood in the book – and it works!

 

The character of Patroclus is very sympathetic at first, being unloved by his father, then accidently killing some kid, leading him to be exiled. This is all pretty damn tragic, so when he starts getting on with Achilles you feel happy for him. I mean, he deserves some happiness.

 

But then we get a massive issue with this book: the characters. See, it’s all well and good having the characters be sympathetic at the beginning but not have too much character. They are just kids; they should grow and develop throughout the story. But they don’t. Both Patroclus and Achilles are so bland that they could give Aeneas a run for his money in the “Blandest Classical Character” competition (I jest! I love you, Aeneas!).

 

This utter blandness stretches further than the main two characters, though. Most characters are bland and dull. The ones who aren’t are usually made up of single emotions, such as Agamemnon, who is just rage, or Pyrrhus, who reminds me a lot of Joffrey from Game of Thrones. The only characters I could say I liked were Odysseus, possibly due to my love of him from the Odyssey, and Briseis, who actually had emotions.

 

Characters are obviously not Miller’s strong point, and this carries over in the dialogue. Conversations can be hard to follow if speech has no name beside it as no character has personality to distinguish themselves, aside from Odysseus. On top of this, it seems Miller at times actively attempts to avoid dialogue, which becomes quite evident later on.

 

However, Miller does have a strong point in her description. At times she can beautifully describe certain areas or people. The book is narrated by Patroclus, so the world is described from his point of view. Because of this, however, it seems that some description can be lacking. She can brilliantly tell you about Achilles’ naked body over and over, but when it gets to battle she seems to have no way of making the fighting flow.

 

I had other issues with the narrative. On many occasions the structure of “If he was (insert emotion) then he did not show it.” I believe that formula may have been used at least ten times throughout the novel, maybe even more. This just felt clunky later on when it happened in quick succession. Furthermore, Miller would spend a long time describing a few days, then suddenly skip through 5 years for no apparent reason, which happened to be quite jarring. Nonetheless, for the most part the description is fairly strong and is important for carrying the plot forwards.

 

But then we have another issue: the plot. The start of the novel eases you in to understanding Patroclus, the situation he’s in, et cetera. He befriends Achilles, falls in love with him, and then they head off to get trained by a centaur for a bit. Then the book kind of stalls for a while, with nothing in particular happening.

 

Without the in depth and interesting characters we don’t have anything to really help us through this period. I nearly completely abandoned the book, but I was waiting for Troy to start. When I thought Troy was on the horizon the book stalled a bit more, had a few interesting parts at Troy and then ended with what seemed like an incredibly rushed ending.

 

My biggest issue with the plot had to be that the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus seemed incredibly forced. There seemed to be no romance, no real love. Just lust. Patroclus constantly comments on how Achilles looks, not his personality. But when hits at heterosexuality come along at times there is focus upon personality, which confused me. Did Miller have a kind of agenda, or am I looking into things a bit too much? Probably the latter... definitely the latter, but it still concerned me.

 

Despite all of this, though, I have to say I did enjoy the book. Well, to an extent. It is definitely an easy to read book and does have a lot to offer people who don’t know the origins of the tale. The writing is somewhat simplistic and not necessarily deep, so is hard to put down. But, as I’ve said before, there are many issues I found with the plot and narrative structure.

 

The Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012. I don’t mean to be too harsh on the book because it wasn’t bad, but I think the other books in the running for the prize money must have been kind of bad, otherwise I don’t see how this won. Maybe it’s because it has its roots in the Iliad, the influence of the Homeric epic pushing it through to win. For me the book was pretty average. Readable, but nothing to get excited about.

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Thanks for the review, LN. I was looking at this book the other day - I'm glad I didn't buy it, now.

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