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The Song of Achilles is centered on two main characters: Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus, a prince, is exiled from his home lands at a young age after accidentally killing a boy. He is fostered by Peleus, father of Achilles, and although Patroclus is at first ignored by Achilles and all the other boys fostered by Peleus, he catches the attention of Achilles and the two become great friends. The two, although a strange match (Patroclus is weak and skinny whilst Achilles is a strong and handsome demi-God), become almost inseparable and Achilles names Patroclus his companion (basically his right-hand man). The pair develop an interesting relationship (winkwink) and Patroclus follows Achilles wherever he goes. There is a prophecy which says that Achilles will be the greatest warrior of his time which has great significance throughout the story. The story spans over many, many years and the beautiful relationship between Patroclus and Achilles develops despite the other more turbulent plot lines in the novel.
I absolutely loved this book. I am a big fan of Greek mythology and books based on classical references and both of which are the core to this novel. This book surprised me a lot as the story unfolded with many different and unique plot strands weaving into each other and the story was about so much more than I thought it would be. I'm not a classics student therefore I can't say whether or not the classical references were exactly accurate, but the author doesn't alter what we already know about these mythological characters too much. The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is slightly ambiguous and Madeline Miller's spin on it makes a fascinating story.
The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles is absolutely beautiful. I didn't think that I would be that great a fan of it (I'm not homophobic, just didn't think that it would work), but the love story between the two Greeks was simply mesmerising. Their relationship isn't sappy in any way, it's a relationship borne out of friendship that is really rather subtle and that's what makes it so beautiful. The love story is one of the biggest themes in the story, though it's more of an undercurrent rather than a piece of dramatic action. There were a couple of times when I doubted one of the pair's sincerity, but for the most part, Achilles and Patroclus had a deeply moving and heartbreaking relationship.
The plot of this novel has so many twists and turns that I had absolutely no idea what to expect. A lot of major themes are introduced in the first parts but aren't explored or don't come about until the second half so you feel this great sense of anticipation as you're waiting for events to unfold. That said, this book wasn't preditable in the slightest. Although there were a few major events that you could see coming, it's the minor details that you haven't even thought about that creep up and surprise you. Even if you think you know the story of Achilles already you won't be able to predict some of the twists that happen in this book.
All in all this is a poignant love story, I'd even go so far as to call it a a tragedy, as well as a hero's battle for glory. This book is written in such a beautiful way with such a brilliant and devastating story that you can't help but fall in love with the world the world and characters that Madeline Miller has created. I would thoroughly recommend this to all fans of mythology adaptations and even those who aren't! This is a must read tale.
At first sight The Song of Achilles is a daunting read; based on Homer's The Iliad, it tells the legend of the powerful demi god Achilles; a fighter a hero and the slayer of Hercules during the Trojan War. In reality this novel is something entirely different. It is an easy read in that the story is enthralling and very far from a heavy literary tome; although it is based on mythology it is much more of a love story than an epic - and it has the ability to bring history to life and make it accessible to everybody.
Before I read The Song of Achilles I was pitifully ignorant of the Iliad. Like most people I had heard the names Achilles, Hercules, Paris and Agamemnon - but I couldn't tell you why, where or how. This novel turns the legend into a gripping modern love story.
Set in Greece in the age of gods and heroes, the story is told by the young prince Patroclus. Patroclus' awkward relationship with his royal father is blighted by disappointment. Patroclus is not a warrior, is not confident, is not popular and his father lets his disappointment show. Bullied by the other children, one day Patroclus decides to fight back and kills one of his bullies in a shocking and traumatic accident. Society and the royal court turn against the unpopular boy and he is exiled by his father to the distant court of King Peleus where he comes to meet and to live in the shadow of the King's son - perfect Prince Achilles. Achilles is everything that Patroclus wants to be; beautiful to look at, fearsome to fight, popular with everybody - Achilles is the golden prince. Part of Achilles success is his parentage - his mother is the sea nymph /goddess Thetis - and Achilles himself is blessed and helped by her god-like powers. His exceptional strength, beauty and invulnerability is due to his semi-divine birth, but the only vulnerable part of him is his heel - legend tell us this is after his mother dipped him in the Styx to make him invulnerable but held onto him by the heel, which remained as the mortal part of him.
The plot really takes off once Petroclus moves to the court of King Peleus. He is befriended by the beautiful Achilles who takes him as a companion and special friend. Spending every waking and sleeping minute together develops a strong bond between the two boys and as they grow and develop into young men this bond becomes something much stronger; a love that will last a lifetime.
The story of Achilles from this moment onward is dominated and shaped by his relationship with Petroclus; the loyalty of Petroclus as he follows his partner across the globe, through war and danger - and eventually into death. As the story plays out we meet all of the characters from legend, both heros and gods - all brought to life by Miller's enthralling story telling and eventually ending up with the Trojan War; the battle to end all battles in the attempt to rescue Helen of Sparta from the Trojan Paris. Petroclus follows Achilles through all his adventures; accepted as his companion and defended by Achilles from danger both in and out of battle. Achilles also has to defend Petroclus from Thetis, who is determined to separate the two and prevent the destiny that awaits them. Achilles destiny is to become the greatest and most powerful warrior of all time, but this fame and glory also brings tragedy.
I was unwilling to start this book, imagining it to be a dry and difficult read, but once I has started I was gripped and raced to the end. Madeline Miller is clearly an expert in her field, having studied and taught both ancient Greek and Latin, and the detail in the storytelling brings the ancient myths to life. The voice of Petroclus shines throughout with a subtle naivety and wonder that really engage the reader. The love story is completely believable and I can assure any slightly homophobic readers out there that the sex scenes are very tastefully written. The Telegraph described the book as "homoerotic slash fiction " but found this to be far from the truth; others have likened it more to Brokeback Mountain and I would agree with this in terms of the gentle affection portrayed. The character of Petroclus is the reason for both the readers' engagement with the story and the tasteful portrayal; sensitive and loyal, his adoration for the shining Achilles shines out through the book and turns what could easily have been a brutal war story and a voyeuristic love story into a charming tale.
I certainly learnt a lot about Greek legend from this book - in a very easy and enjoyable way. I always like a book that expands my knowledge as well as entertaining me - and The Song of Achilles ticks all the boxes.
Madeline Miller is an American novelist, born in Boston in 1978. She is well qualified to write about Greek Legend, having a BA and MA in Latin and Ancient Greek, but despite this, The Song of Achilles took her 10 years to write.
It is obviously Miller's passion, and although it was her debut novel it won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks (12 April 2012)