Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Narrator: Frazer Douglas
Pages/Run Time: 416 Pages/11 hours and 18 minutes
At a Glance: If you’ve ever finished a book and felt bereft at its ending, then you know exactly how I feel after reading and listening to this outstanding novel.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: The legend begins…
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Review: Madeline Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles is a book I’ve had on my Kindle for years but could never quite get around to reading. Now that I have done, not only reading it but listening to the audiobook as well, I will say without any reservations whatsoever that I can’t imagine experiencing a more gorgeous novel this year—or perhaps for years to come, and I’m not altogether sure I have the words to do it justice.
Miller’s own saga of the war begun over Helen of Troy is an adaptation rather than a faithful retelling of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. The focus of The Song of Achilles is more so on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus—steadfast companions, brothers in every way but blood, and some have even speculated, though Homer never declared as much, that the two men were lovers. While the war is obviously a significant backdrop of the storyline, taking up a decade in the telling of this story and being the catalyst for everything of significance that happens before novel’s end, Odysseus, Homer’s legendary hero, is relegated to a side role in this story (though he dominates his scenes with boldness and charisma) to make way for the romance between these two men of myth. It’s the speculated love-beyond-friendship between Achilles and Patroclus that takes center stage, and it’s a love story the author fulfills with all the poetic majesty of a true Greek tragedy.
The Song of Achilles is sung by Patroclus, and while his narration begins before his birth, we soon meet him personally, at the tender age of five, when his father, King Menoitius, hosts the games. It is the first time Patroclus lays eyes on Achilles, and the first time Patroclus is made to understand, by his own father, no less, that as the son of a “simple” mother, he will never achieve Achilles’ even then obvious potential for greatness.
“That is what a son should be.”
The first person narrative leaves us with as reliable a story telling as can be trusted from the man whose near worshipful love of Achilles pardons the man’s every character flaw. In many ways, in fact, we don’t see Achilles as mere mortal through Patroclus’ eyes—there are times in the telling that it wouldn’t be impossible to believe Achilles has been plucked from Olympus itself and placed on earth for nothing more than to prove other humans’ failings. And this is how we’re led to the agony of the story’s end and the way it slays the heart so effortlessly.
We meet Achilles, formally, years after the games, when Patroclus is exiled by his father for the accidental killing of a boy who’d attempted to bully Patroclus. The exiled prince is sent to live with King Peleus, Achilles’ father, and it’s from this point on that the story truly begins to take shape—woven into what becomes a love that defies death born in the companionship of these two young boys.
“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but each other.”
Achilles is the golden one, fleet of feet, skilled in the weaponry of combat, blessed by the gods—the son of not only a king but of the goddess Thetis. Through Patroclus’ voice, we see some of the best of King Peleus in Achilles, in his kindness toward the exiled prince; and some of the worst of his goddess mother, who, in this novel, lacks even the barest hint of warmth or affection, and who blatantly loathes Patroclus. We play witness to Achilles’ hubris and excessive pride at many points during this story’s telling, no more or less so than when it is prophesied that he will be Aristos Achaion, best of the Greeks—though Achilles also knows that he is fated to die a hero’s death at a young age. And even Achilles cannot cheat the Moirai.
“Gasps amongst the men; new cheers burst forth. Thetis, I thought. It could be no one else. She was pulling his divinity forth, mantling it like cream on every inch of his skin. Helping her son make the most of his dearly bought fame.”
The Song of Achilles is a glorious feat of storytelling, far too magnificent in scope and with a cast of characters too vast to easily encompass it all in a review. Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with “the face that launched a thousand ships” and know only the most basic details of the Trojan war (and the roles Hector and Paris played in Achilles’ fate), there is no mistaking the legend of heroes and the bonds of love forged between Patroclus and Achilles in this novel. And, the price they both paid when war and the Fates came to collect.
For ten years I watched the gods take sides in this war and lost myself in the romantic idea that those thousand ships sailed with the intent of mounting a rescue of the most beautiful woman in the world, but then ended on little more than pretense, an excuse for men to go to battle over a woman who seemingly didn’t want to be rescued. It was to be Achilles’ own launch into eternal glory, his swan song before his own demise, this war and the death of Hector, and though Achilles and Patroclus did their best to defy fate and thwart Achilles’ destiny for a time… in the end, the gods and a man’s destiny always win.
When this song comes to a close, the refrain that rings truest is that Achilles’ heel wasn’t his pride and arrogance alone but the enormity of his love for Patroclus—it turned out to be both his greatest strength and his gravest weakness. Patroclus had such a tender heart—kind and empathetic—and without his presence in Achilles’ life, the halfling son of a king and a goddess would have had no one with which to show he could be tender too.
Frazer Douglas’s narration of The Song of Achilles is both outstanding and frustrating: outstanding because his voice is like silk over velvet, hypnotic and draws the listener into the story, mesmerizing with his rich tenor and flawless delivery. But frustrating in that I had to turn off the audio toward the end and read the book at my own pace because his delivery is so mellifluous and languid that he couldn’t read fast enough to appease me and deliver quickly enough all the suffering at the climax and onward of the story. I had to finish reading this book on my own, then go back and listen to Douglas’s narration—and I can say without reservation that the pain and tragedy was so much worse in the listening because he voiced that agony so beautifully. So much so that my crying turned into sobbing because of it, and it was a horrific and lovely pain.
If you’ve ever finished a book and felt bereft at its ending, then you know exactly how I feel after reading and listening to this outstanding novel. It is grand beyond words, poetic in the same way Homer’s own The Iliad is, with the addition of an eternal love, one that lives forever in The Song of Achilles.
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