The Short Review: A thoughtful, entertaining, and heartbreaking queer retelling of The Iliad. If you like love stories, Greek mythology, or war novels, you’ll find a little bit of all three in this book.
The Long Review: The Song of Achilles is the first novel by Madeline Miller. I actually read her second novel, Circe, last year upon it’s release. While I liked and appreciated Circe, it didn’t leave me rushing to pick up her other work. I dismissed it, saying that books with such fantastical elements weren’t for me. But after finishing The Song of Achilles, I want to shove it into the hands of everyone I know. I loved it, and found it to be an unexpectedly compelling love story.
The story is told from the point of view of Patroclus—who many know only as a friend and wartime companion of Achilles. We follow him from his early life up until the the ending of The Iliad, and Miller does a beautiful job exploring the story in a way that feels fresh and exciting; like we haven’t heard this story before. It also feels so familiar to now—how we are as people—without sacrificing the world it takes place in. I think part of that comes from her choice in this narrator. Although he’s described in the beginning as weak, I don’t think he’d be considered weak by our standards. Although Miller never directly addresses it, Patroclus has to deal with toxic masculinity from all sides. I think we’ve been talking about this problem now more than ever, which gives us even more of an entry point in understanding this character and his place in this world, which helps us better identify.
This is first and foremost a love story between two men. The speculation of Patroclus and Achilles being lovers is nearly as old as the story itself. What’s so beautiful in this story is the way Miller explores their dynamic and gives us an answer for what happens in The Iliad. Without spoiling The Iliad (even though it’s the oldest text in the western canon) this helps us fully understand why Achilles reacts the way he does towards the end of The Iliad, and why such a small character as Patroclus could have such a big impact.
Millers prose is beautiful. Although it gives us the setting and period of the story, it’s never so distracting as to take us out of it. She includes just enough moments we can recognize as our own that we feel immediately integrated. I will say, towards the beginning, it did veer into YA just a tad, but that’s also fitting since he’s a lot younger at the time.
A fellow bookstagrammer ( @bookedbytim ) said something that struck me as so true about this novel, as far as it’s importance in existing. He said, “growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with Greek mythology and I never dreamed I’d be able to read a story with a gay character like me in it.” It struck me because I remember being in sixth grade, learning about Greek mythology, and thinking something similar. I can only speak from my experience, but something I remember in particular is substituting myself in place of a girl character so I could imagine myself with the boy characters I liked. Imagine having to spend your life substituting yourself with someone who isn’t even your identifying gender, because there was no representation for you to see yourself in. And i’m sure other people who aren’t represented have had to do something similar. Even if this book weren’t as great as it is, I’d still be grateful for it, because it means I’m being seen.
This was definitely a five star read from me, and it’s made me excited to see where Madeline Miller ventures to next. Have you read The Song of Achilles? Let me know your thoughts!