Book review: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a retelling of the story of Achilles, from the perspective of a character a lot of people forget about…except those who interpret it in a certain way.

Warning: There is a minor spoiler alert in the next paragraph, but since the spoiler in question is 2,750 years old, perhaps not that big of a spoiler. But hey. If you’re not familiar with the Iliad, and don’t want a certain plot point revealed, you can skip to the paragraph following.

For many, when reading the Iliad, or some adaptation of it (looking at you, Troy), Patroclus is just some random side character, one who dies, and his death so enrages Achilles who then becomes the hero we’ve all heard of. In other words, Patroclus dies so Brad Pitt can have his epic fight scene with Eric Bana, and that’s all we really care about, right?

But many readers of the Iliad saw the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as something deeper than just mere friends (or, in the case of Troy, cousins). Achilles was haughty and arrogant to all, except to Patroclus, to whom he was affectionate. Some interpret it as simply a deep, platonic bond, but many see romantic undertones to it, including William Shakespeare and a whole host of classical and Hellenistic experts, of which Madeline Miller is one.

Her book is told from the point of view of Patroclus, and explores his life and relationship with Achilles. It’s a beautifully told story, tender, and with clear, explicit scenes depicting their feelings for each other. We also get to meet some wonderful side characters, including the centaur Chiron, wily Ulysses, ruthless Agamemnon, and so on.

But make no mistake, this is the story of Patroclus and Achilles.

The biggest flaw I could see in this story is a relatively minor one, and that’s the fact that Miller sort of hurries past Achilles’ interest in Patroclus. She does a great job of showing how Patroclus first notices Achilles, and how his feelings slowly grow over time, but the same can’t be said for the reverse. They have one conversation and suddenly, Achilles likes him more than the other boys. It’s a little abrupt, to say the least.

Having said that, their relationship with each other deepens in real, meaningful ways after that sequence. It then becomes wholly convincing that the two don’t just have affection for the other, but that they truly love each other. And it is here where the book is strongest. Aside from their hurried introduction, Miller luxuriates in the two boys bonding with the other, and using their relationship to see the famous stories surrounding the Trojan War from the narrow point of view of Patroclus.

The story is, as I mentioned, beautifully told and deeply heartfelt.

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