We were like gods at the dawning of the world, & our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.
I really liked Circe, so I bought another, older book by its author (Madeline Miller): The Song of Achilles. I’m glad I did because it’s terrific.
The simplest way to describe it is that it’s The Iliad from Patroclus’ point of view. I haven’t read The Iliad, so I cannot really personally vouch for The Song of Achilles‘ faithfulness to the source material. However, based upon some wiki research and google-fu, I THINK all the important high points from The Illiad are preserved.
Some might consider this a Spoiler, but really, it’s impossible to give prospective buyers advice or a taste of the book without mentioning this: The Song of Achilles centrally features the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, with many scenes reminiscent of the movie Call Me By Your Name (i.e. has languid, explicit scenes between two young male lovers in idyllic settings). Lest some think that it is modernism run amok to have Achilles and Patroclus be homosexual lovers, they were evidently portrayed by some writers as such as far back as the 5th century BC. Whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were lovers appears to be one of the oldest arguments in literature.
The love story is the book’s strong suit. The slower, romantic scenes are sweet, vivid, and richly described. The motivations and internal conflicts of the characters are cleanly delineated, and the protagonists are sympathetic, flawed, and well-drawn. The weaker elements – although by all means still fun-to-read – are the portrayals of Achilles’ pride (which seemingly comes out of nowhere) and the battles. Because Achilles’ attitude comes straight from The Iliad (it’s really the main plot point of that story), the author couldn’t jettison it. However, it doesn’t quite jive with Achilles’ personality shown elsewhere in the book. As for the battle scenes, they are good enough, but it’s clear that the internal conflicts of the characters and interpersonal conflicts between the Greeks interests the author far more than killin’ and fightin’. That’s certainly a valid choice; I just want to forewarn and/or entice buyers of this book that there isn’t a ton of descriptive, tense war battlin’ in it.
The supporting characters in this novel are also compelling. As in Circe, Odysseus is a bright spot. A brilliant, tricky, powerful man, with a humanist (albeit flexible) moral code, he makes every scene in which he appears that much better. Briseis, Ajax, and Chiron are all interesting figures.
For any fans of Greek mythology, love stories, epic poetry, or just good writing, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
My rating: 5 stars.
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