I picked up Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles somewhat hesitantly. It is a very buzzed about book, numerous reviewers and bloggers that I trust rave about it. But it’s a story I know so well. Like probably a lot of gay nerds, I went through an obsession with Greek classics and mythology (is there just something about that subject matter that appeals directly to that demographic? It’s probably the muscle men, fierce female goddesses, queer narratives, and Greece – gays are obsessed with Mykonos). I’ve read The Iliad and I know the story of Achilles so I feared it would be like watching the movie before reading the book (what monster would do that?!). BUT this would be even worse, this would be literally reading THE BOOK before reading the book. Luckily my fears fell quickly as I started reading and I was more than pleasantly surprised by the beautiful story that Miller crafted.
The plot of The Song of Achilles is nothing new. The story is the life of half God-hero-stud Achilles, which obvi includes the Trojan War and the iconic cast of characters like Hector, Agamemnon, and full pantheon of Greek Gods. To add a fresh take to this ancient classic, Miller brilliantly makes the narrator Patroclus, Achilles’s partner. Whereas Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship has been interpreted in numerous ways, Miller presents the pair as lovers. Told from Patroclus’s perspective, we not only get to experience the iconic fateful moments from The Iliad but gain insightful background into Patroclus’s and Achilles’s lives, thought processes, and personalities. The choice to focus the story in such a way results in a narrative centered less on events and more so on a deep dive into the beautiful, challenging, tragic, and powerful romantic relationship.
My hesitation in reading The Song of Achilles came not only from knowing the story but also from always HATING Achilles! He reminded me of high school jocks that were the worst (Re: me being gay nerd…triggered!). He’s the cocky star athlete who knows he’s the best and acts like a petulant brat whenever things don’t go his way. Though when viewed through Patroclus’s lens, we see the faults in Achilles’s hubris and gain a more human understanding of the character. We see Achilles’s softer side: we see him struggle with his fate, balancing choices that affect not only himself but his relationship with Patroclus. A more complex characterization is achieved, which adds new depth to the story. I commend Miller for crafting an Achilles that was multifaceted and not simply an asshole!
The Song of Achilles has something for everyone. It is a beautiful and heart wrenching queer lover story (perfect for this gay nerd!) It is a work of historical fiction in which Miller does the impossible by faithfully retelling the classic story but doing so in a way that makes it completely fresh and more emotionally potent. As well it has plenty of war, violence, and Game of Thrones-esque evil characters to keep you turning the pages as quickly as possible. With my hesitations fully gone, I wholeheartedly recommend The Song of Achilles and cannot wait to dive headfirst into Madeline Miller’s other books!
- Title: The Song of Achilles
- Author: Madeline Miller
- Published: September 20, 2011 (Ecco / Harper Collins)
- Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBT
- Booky Nooky Rating: * * * * *