Book Review: The Song of Achilles

Title:               Song of Achilles

Author:           Madeline Miller

Publisher:      P.S. (T.M.) of HarperCollins Publishers

Published:     2012

Genre(s):        Historical Fiction, Young Adult, LGBT+ Fiction (YA)

Pages:                        369

Read Time:    13 Days (Casual Reading Pace)

 

.::Publisher Summary::.

            Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks,” son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary kind Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful-irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.

They are trained by the centaur, Chiron, in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and tor between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

 

.::Personal Summary::.

            Achilles, a leisurely prince, becomes the fascination of exiled ex-prince, Patroclus. The pair becomes inseparable as they grow from young boys to proper men. The trials that will forge Achilles into “the best of all the Greeks” inevitably make Patroclus an intricate part of the events leading up to the fall of Troy. This romantically mythological retelling will see Achilles and Patroclus make difficult choices that remind us that where there are Greeks there is tragedy.

 

AVERAGE RATING

*4 out of 5*

 

4-stars

The review of this book is based on 4 pre-determined categories (Technical, Creative, Recommendation, and Personal). These areas, unless otherwise specified, are reviewed as objectively as possible for the benefit of readers. This is the average rating between those categories. Below the line are the detailed explanations for the ratings of each category:

  • Technical (4/5)
  • Creative (5/5)
  • Recommendation (4/5)
  • Personal, Biased (3/5)

 

TECHNICAL RATING

*4 out of 5*

4-stars

How easy this novel to read? Does everything make sense? Is there anything about the writing that would detract from the quality of the story?

 

We have all went into a book and found that it was a pain in the ass to read it. The words jumble together, the sentences feel repetitive, and the paragraphs get so descriptive that we want to close the book every page or two. Thankfully, ‘Song of Achilles’ was not one of those books. Everything flowed well through the exposition to the resolution. Honestly, for me there were no technical bumps that detracted from the quality of the text. Well, except Chapter Three. Allow me to explain.

This novel is told in first person from the point of view of the Average Joe boy prince, Patroclus of King Menoitius. Forgive me for my sarcasm, but when I read a book in first person that doesn’t label chapters by character name – well – I expect the whole book to be told from that single character’s point of view. Well, Chapter Three violated that expectation for about two pages. For this brief time we experience the story from a new perspective: Thetis. This is the goddess that mothers Achilles, whom was foretold to be “the best of all the Greeks.”

Aside from that there a few events that transpire in Chapter Three that really set the pace for Patroclus’ journey through this story. I found myself having to reread sections of Chapter Three just to ensure I fully understood what I was reading. It was not because I did not understand the words, phrases, or descriptions but rather that the telling was so vague and quick that it would take me several lines to realize what I had just read. Author Madeline Miller is guiltier of doing this during the rising action of ‘Song of Achilles’ than later in our book. She is quite forward about events that do transpire the deeper we get into her text. As with all things, there are limitations, but the further into the book I got there was less to be bothered with from a technical aspect.

 

 

CREATIVE RATING

*5 out of 5*

5-stars

Is the message of this story unique? Did the content of this text stand out to competitors in the same category? Was the quality of the content prioritized in the storytelling, or was the quantity of content seemingly the most important thing?

 

Let me start by stating that I have a certification in Greek Mythology from Wesleyan University. I obtained it through www.coursera.com, which a delightful tool if you love learning for free (or extremely low cost). This by no means makes me an expert, but during my course I ventured pretty deep into Greek mythos. I have my fair share of knowledge to utilize when critiquing the creativity, which I am pairing with the various books and films that I’ve enjoyed pertaining to Greek Mythology. Both fortunately and unfortunately the market is flooded with this sort of mythos. Should we dare to blame anyone in particular?

Perhaps if Madeline Miller had done a poor job retelling the story of Patroclus and Achilles there would reason to be upset about the plethora of Greek Mythology being reborn in fiction publications. However, Madeline does a few things that I think really make this text stand out against competitors.

Firstly, her characterization of Patroclus is wildly bland. There is nothing special about him. When I said ‘Average Joe’ to describe him it was an honest correlation. Patroclus has no aptitude for fighting, no aptitude for socialization, and no distinguishing qualities that would make him more valuable a companion than literally anyone else. It isn’t until later in the book that Patroclus has something ‘special’ that he can do to contribute the people around him, and even then it is not something he uniquely can do for others. As such, he remains extremely ordinary.

And yet, Patroclus is such an important part of this story. This sends a message that ordinary individuals do have a role to play in the bigger picture; that a simple individual is capable of changing the course of a war – if we’re using specific examples.

Another thing that Madeline Miller does that is unique to this telling of the story is that the distinct lack of dramatization of everything is constant from beginning to end. The vagueness which I just dinged points on in the previous section is now boosting the creative rating of ‘Song of Achilles.’ Yes, the vagueness, which adds a few moments of whiplash throughout the tale, actually adds to the distinct way this author tells the love story of Patroclus and Achilles.

As you may know, there is nothing concrete stating that these two had a romantic relationship. It is easy to interpret it in that way when you consider the picture painted in the ‘Iliad’ that portrays Achilles as showing a preference for Patroclus over others. This is something that is kept mostly true in ‘Song of Achilles,’ in which Achilles prioritizes Patroclus over all other responsibilities – except one. His fatal flaw is his pride, as confirmed in every retelling of the fall of Troy.

More specifically, I appreciate the delicateness in which Madeline Miller shows the complexity of humans (mortals). One specific aspect that I found intriguing, and difficult at times was the clearly fluid sexuality of our main characters. Patroclus and Achilles engage one another as well as others – which you should know is sexual in nature before reading the book. If you are not a fan of LGBT+ positive literature then this text is NOT for you, though I would implore you to reconsider your outdated thinking.

Of course, in ‘Song of Achilles’ these two characters remain very dedicated to one another. Jealousy never penetrates their relationship in such a way that it disintegrates their bond. In fact, the one thing that actually gets in the way of their dedication to one another are decisions made in spite during the war to retrieve Helen. I think it is important for readers to see a different side of relationships and how monogamy can work in different ways. No matter the choices of these two men, it was clear to all supporting characters that Achilles lived only for Patroclus (and his glory, naturally) and visa verse. Not focusing on the actual events of this particular period of time adds to the value of the book in a way that sets apart from all other stories being told with Greek mythos on the market today.

 

RECOMMENDATION RATING

*4 out of 5*

4-stars

Would you feel comfortable recommending this novel to others to read? What would you say about it to others? Will this book stay with you for a long period of time?

 

In this section I have to be more biased than in previous sections. What is my personal opinion on sharing this book with others I know? Unfortunately, my group of friends is small due to the community in which I live. I am somewhere that is ultra-conservative, ultra-judgmental, and ultra-religious that could make me public enemy number one for my support of many things that go against their beliefs. In spite of those limitations, I would still recommend this book for people who have a love of Greek mythos and LGBT+ romance.

Primarily, I do not believe this story is “historical fiction” because this book is about characters and relationships more than events. I am a stickler for details such as this. On amazon, this book is categorized as a historical fiction piece. The same is true about competitor, Barnes and Noble’s, categorization of this text. I genuinely feel this is not the best way to market the content in the pages of ‘Song of Achilles.’

Aside from this small ‘error,’ there is little else negative that I can really say about the book. Even that does not actually criticizing the story. There are many reasons to read Madeline Miller’s work:

  • The work shows how avoiding our destiny can lead us exactly where we were always meant to go.
  • Growing up doesn’t mean leaving the people you love behind, but rather makes difficult choices that your loved ones may not always understand.
  • Relationships do not always fit into tidy boxes.
  • People can change from their mistakes and actions.
  • Regular people who are seemingly nothing special can make the difference when the time comes for someone to step up and be the change.

 

And that’s just to name a few!

 

PERSONAL AND 100% BIASED RATING

*3 out of 5*

3-stars 

How did you like this text? Was this worth your time reading? Was there anything about it that you were found unappealing? What would you change about this work?

 

As an aspiring author and not a published one, I can already hear the voices of readers scolding me for having any opinions on the work that I’ve read. “What do you know – you’re not a real writer,” they’ll probably shout through their computers. The Internet is funny that way but I’ll not let it deter me from having feelings about this novel.

I have no intentions of repeating myself. The categorization of this text as Historical Fiction instead of just Young Adult or LGBT Fiction bothers me as a businessperson (Yes, my education is in business – and so is the majority of my work history). The publisher’s summary sort of can be interpreted as this story being more rooted in the events taking place at Troy than is actually in the novel. I feel like this is both a marketing win and a marketing fail. Yes, this strategy made the story fit into a few different categories that bring critical readers. Yes, this strategy gets the content out to more groups of people that could potentially be interested in this work.

However, no, this does not accurately portray what the story actually has in store for those readers that commit to going on this adventure. I think dropping the Historical Fiction categorization in favor of a ‘Romance’ label would have been more fitting. Unfortunately, I see the downfall in doing this as well because when people read Romance they expect more explicit content than what ‘Song of Achilles’ provides. So my argument, while valid, is only a matter opinion with no true merit of judgment on the contents of the book.

Another thing that made it hard for me to rate this book higher from my personal perspective was that the characters themselves weren’t particularly likable. I know that not all people are exceptional, and I even value when ordinary characters are hoisted into fantastical scenarios that highlight that simpleton style as being remarkable. So I do not lightly say that the characters were not always my favorite ones to follow in this journey.

Patroclus, while one of the kindest characters in this Greek tragedy, also is so overtly obligated to Achilles by his own freewill that I cannot excuse his lack of sense. Many times he would let certain things slide away without question of condemnation simply because his love for Achilles was stronger than any other emotions triggered by the misconduct being witnessed. Though, if I am being properly fair to Patroclus – he does redeem himself by the choices that he makes later in the story.

Achilles, however, is one character that I don’t like for the majority of the story. On a few occasions he proves himself humble. Those times are so sparing, though, that I find myself hoping that Patroclus would go on and live a happier life with Briseis. I don’t find the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles exactly healthy. Of course, when works like ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ make it big, I’m not sure the market cares about healthy relationships in fiction as much as I seem to care.

The last thing that really was difficult for me as an individual when reading ‘Song of Achilles’ was the distinct lack of actual mythology being portrayed in the text. Admittedly, the style of writing that Madeline Miller has is something similar to what I would hope to publish someday in my own way, but I did find myself yearning for more. I wanted events – more battles, more adventure. This book does not aim to really portray the events that took place at Troy but rather the people that made those events happen, the two key players and how they affected the outcome. Reading a book about characters is just as good as one about events but I did go into this thinking I would have more mythology moving the plot. That was a let down for me, but not enough for me to say this was a text I did not like. I very much enjoyed reading ‘Song of Achilles.’

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