Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published: 2011
Pages: 352 (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Read: 27/6/12 - 29/6/12

Synopsis: Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing. As they grow into young men their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men 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. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned. (from Goodreads)   

First Line: "My father was a king and the son of kings."

Review: I'm trying to keep this review from being too effusive, as I've just finished the book and am still in the afterglow of a fantastic read.  Suffice to say: I love this book.

I'm something of a Classics nerd, to the extent that I can be a bit precious about the Greek myths in general and Homer in particular.  I was wary about reading Percy Jackson (though I really like those books; another series I need to finish*) and I refuse to watch Troy because I'm sorry you cut the gods and made Achilles and Patroclus cousins I do not want this, so I was a little worried about The Song of Achilles.  I needn't have been: even though I knew what was going to happen to everyone, I was still gripped and cared about the characters - to the extent that I cried at the end, even though I knew exactly what that end would be.

I think part of the reason I loved the book so much is that it fitted almost exactly with my own view of the Trojan War.  Not only because of the Achilles/Patroclus relationship, but the portrayal of the other heroes, especially Odysseus.  I started reading the book on my lunch break at work, and I had to smother laughs at the sheer snark of Odysseus at Tyndareus's palace.  And then the epic snarkfest between him and Diomedes - so much joy.  If there is one tiny complaint it's that we don't get Diomedes kicking the arses of Ares and Aphrodite because that would be awesome (but I see why we don't).  And a quick note on the gods: they appear and are involved in the fate of the heroes, and they have all the power that features in the myths, as well as the ability to guide men without the men quite realising, which works perfectly.

But it's in the portrayal of Achilles that the book works best.  In The Iliad he's either stubbornly proud or psychotically vengeful, so to get more depth to his character and story is wonderful.  I've never particularly liked him as a hero, but this made him more human and his story even more tragic, and I wanted to reach into the pages and stop everything from happening.  And this is me trying not to spoil for people who don't know Homer, but the end of the book is a steady rush to a finale I knew but dreaded.  That is the strength of the book for me: that it made me care even though there was no suspense for me.

I think even if you go into this book with no knowledge of the Trojan War, it's still a fantastic read.  If anything that might add to it as a story, because I was foreshadowing everything that was going to happen by myself.  But I wouldn't give up the sheer joy of discovering that someone else views these characters as I do for the chance to read this book as if it was a new story.  As a book it is beautifully written, the battle scenes are fantastic, the research is clear but never shown off, and it is a marvellous read.  At its heart - taking away the epic story and the foreknowledge of the character's fates - it is a love story between two young men caught up in a war neither of them want, and it is wonderfully told.

50 Words Or Less: A marvellous read, even without a foreknowledge of the Trojan War.  While my Classics geekery added an enormous amount to my enjoyment, it is a wonderful book regardless, working as both a romance and a historical novel.  My fantastic read afterglow will last.

Rating: 10/10

* Although I did work myself up into a somewhat ridiculous fury over the whole Percy calling himself Nobody to Polyphemus won't make sense to anyone reading the book thing. 

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