Review: The Song of Achilles

While I’m waiting for my copies of the 2020 longlist books to come in, here’s another previous winner I read recently for a little extra Women’s Prize content! I picked up Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles at the very end of February- 2012’s WP winner. I was underwhelmed by Miller’s shortlisted Circe when I read it a year and a half ago, and so had been putting off Miller’s earlier offering- I shouldn’t have!

thesongofachillesIn the novel, Patroclus narrates his life from family difficulties and a competition for Helen’s hand in marriage during his boyhood, to becoming Achilles’ constant companion and eventually participating in the Trojan War. Through Patroculs’s unwavering attention and the close romantic relationship the two share, we see Achilles grow and change from an impressive, kind child to the Greeks’ most renowned fighter- a legend, but also a proud and broken man.

“It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”

The Song of Achilles is a phenomenal retelling- it’s no surprise this book has appealed to Greek myth fans and novices alike over the past several years. Prior knowledge of the Trojan War and who’s who in Greek mythology is not necessary to enjoy this story, though those already familiar with the tale and characters will likely appreciate the ways Miller links her own tale to canon material. The reason this works so well for such a varied audience is that it is not simply another Iliad– the book does not narrow its focus on Helen or the Trojan horse or any other particular element of the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans that’s been told a thousand times, though those aspects are peripherally present. Instead, Miller delivers a relationship study- this is essentially a m/m romance focused on emotion and character development, giving voice to an important man who has hitherto (at least in my reading experience) been marked as important only for his proximity to greater heroes.

“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”

On paper, in a comparison between this book and Circe, it’s hard to believe that Circe wouldn’t rank higher for me. And yet, in the very first pages of The Song of Achilles, the difference between the two- and the reason for my clear preference for this book- was obvious: Patroclus’s voice sets it head and shoulders above Miller’s more recent release. With Circe I could admire the writing and themes, enjoy the appearances of old familiar Greek faces, and look at a character I’d never considered very carefully in a new feminist light. But I found very little emotion in that book. The Song of Achilles was another matter. Patroclus is clearly a character Miller must have felt passionate about- his relationship with Achilles, a thing she must have cherished. The novel bleeds emotion from every page. The love and friendship our two heroes feel for each other is both patient and fierce, despite their peers’ disdain for it. Patroclus is compelling, propulsive, even as a tag-along character who’s not often in the thick of the action. It is impossible not to care about him.

Knowing, as I did, the traditional outcome for this storyline, I knew this was going to hurt. And it did, it did. But somehow, even knowing where the story of the Trojan War tends to go- and me, hating predictability- I found myself no less invested in watching this story play out, and no less effected in the inevitable outcome. It’s the power of the perspective, and the purpose to which Miller uses it.

“The never let you be famous and happy.”

All in all, an excellent read. I positively sped through this one and loved every minute of it. I recommend it to Greek myth fans, to queer romance fans, to character study fans, to Women’s Prize readers, and virtually everyone else. It’s a great retelling, it’s a great story in its own right, and there’s a reason it won a prestigious literary prize. This has absolutely been one of my favorite previous winner reads so far.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I love Greek mythology, I love classic retellings, and I’m loving the journey I’m just beginning with queer romance. To be honest, after reading Circe, I didn’t entirely understand Miller’s huge popularity. Now I do, and am fully on board with reading whatever she publishes next. Perhaps I won’t love every book she writes, but I don’t want to miss out on the chance that she taps into this level of emotion again. I hope my next backlist Women’s Prize winner will impress me as much.

Have you read this book, and/or Circe? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

36 thoughts on “Review: The Song of Achilles”

    1. I really liked this one! Even though I didn’t love Circe as much, many readers seem to, and many even prefer it over Achilles, so I hope it lives up to expectations for you! πŸ™‚

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  1. If ye get a chance ye should read her short story Galatea. It is interesting but really I just (selfishly) want to hear yer point of view on it. I wasn’t planning on reading The Song of Achilles but this review kinda makes me want to change me mind. Arrrr!
    x The Captain

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    1. I can’t recommend The Song of Achilles highly enough! It truly is a fantastic book. And thanks for mentioning Galatea, I’d forgotten about it but actually would be interested in reading that story as well. I’m not sure when I would get to it, but will definitely post a review when I do! πŸ™‚

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    1. I am planning to read Galatea! I had forgotten about it tbh because I think it’s only a short story? But now that it’s on my radar again, I think it will be easier to fit a short piece into my schedule.

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  2. I was the opposite, I liked Circe better. I found her voice stronger, and I didn’t care much for Patrocles. It’s odd, because I find the Trojan War such a great story, but this is one of my least favorite re-tellings. *shrugs* There’s no accounting for different tastes, huh?

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    1. I do have the sense that Miller’s readers tend to strongly prefer one book over the other, and can’t quite agree on which one is “best”! The two books are definitely a bit different stylistically so I suppose it makes sense that readers have different favorites between them. There were definitely elements I appreciated about Circe as well, though interestingly I didn’t find her voice as strong as Patroclus’s! But I loved the idea of her character from the synopsis, which perhaps made my expectations too high, and my lowered expectations after reading Circe probably helped me with Achilles. Reading is certainly a journey.

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    1. Thanks so much! I strongly preferred The Song of Achilles, but I think Miller’s readers are divided in which book they tend to like best- it may turn out the opposite for you! But since both books are a bit different in style my main recommendation is simply to pick up the other if one of them isn’t working for you. Whichever title you end up starting with, I do think Miller is very worth reading, and I hope you enjoy her work! πŸ™‚

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    1. Thank you! If you loved Circe I highly recommend picking this one up, though they are definitely a bit different stylistically! I hope you love this one as much as Circe- happy reading! πŸ™‚

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  3. I haven’t read this book in years but I remember it gave me All The Feels πŸ˜‚ I think it was the first time I’d read a book with a same-sex couple as the main characters, as well. Haven’t seen many others since then, tbh : ( Sorry, rambling. I agree it’s a good book and it’s nice someone else liked it. Also, you write gorgeously about it. “Patroclus is clearly a character Miller must have felt passionate about- his relationship with Achilles, a thing she must have cherished. The novel bleeds emotion from every page. The love and friendship our two heroes feel for each other is both patient and fierce, despite their peers’ disdain for it.”- I especially loved that bit ☺️

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    1. Thank you so much! πŸ™‚ This book is definitely an emotional read, which is what worked so well for me even though I knew the basics of the plot when I started. Patroclus completely won me over.

      I haven’t read very many same-sex relationships either, but having enjoyed this one so much I think I should look into picking more of them up! It’s a shame they don’t seem to appear on popular fiction lists very often. If you haven’t read Red White and Royal Blue yet, I thought it was a bit unrealistic but very fun, with another m/m romance! And for f/f relationships I think Sarah Waters does an excellent job, and Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is fantastic!

      (P.S. – so sorry for the late reply!)

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    1. I definitely recommend The Song of Achilles, especially if Circe didn’t entirely work for you- I think Miller’s style is very different between the two, and though I appreciated some of the pieces that made up Circe, Achilles struck me as a much stronger piece as a whole. Very fitting that this one was the WP winner, imo!

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  4. Just yesterday someone was raving to me about this book! Have you read Silence of the Girls? I loved that one and wasn’t sure I needed to read another Iliad re-telling but I think I’ve been convinced!

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    1. I have read and really liked The Silence of the Girls! I appreciated the ideas and change of perspective Barker was able to convey with it, but The Song of Achilles takes a different angle that I think is also very interesting in its own right. Personally I love comparing/contrasting similar stories so reading both was always going to be a great fit for me, but I think the differences in characterization will make both books seem worthwhile for many readers- even though the plot is of course similar, they’re separate stories. And Miller’s writing is so compelling here, I definitely recommend it!

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      1. I completely agree. I’m very intrigued to see whether this year’s WP longlister A Thousand Ships lives up to expectations as well!

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      2. The initial reviews I’m reading suggest it doesn’t. Or at least that it suffers in comparison to others that are similar. It’s not available here anyway yet so I’m not rushing to read it!

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  5. If I can get this one on audio I will listen to it. If a book isn’t terribly engaging, it’s easy to space out while I’m driving and listening, so I’m trying to make sure I only pick books that really have something special (and then make sure I don’t run any red lights).

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    1. Ha, I thought Patroclus’s voice was so compelling, and I bet that it would make for a great listen! I can’t remember if I’ve heard anything specific about the audio quality, but I was so glued to the story that I can definitely recommend it on the strength of the characters and plot. I hope you have as good a time with it as I did!

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      1. I typically listen to audio books on my commute to work, but I found out today that the library is closing now through end-of-business Thursday, at which time there is a board meeting to decide what to do next.

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      2. Oh no! I’ve been worried about my library closing too. :/ I know it’s for the best for the community but it is very sad not to have that resource available. So far only events have been canceled at mine; I’m hoping that as long as people don’t start congregating there more than usual that’ll be the end of it. It will definitely complicate my Women’s Prize reading if they do end up closing their doors! I hope you’ll find another convenient way to listen to audiobooks in the meantime, I’m sure we could all use the distraction that fiction provides.

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      3. I would say if you’ve got books at the library that you’d like to have, I’d go get them now while it’s still open. The government is trying to reduce gatherings of more than 10 people, and libraries have people just congregating by the dozens, touching so many things (computers, books, elevator buttons, railings, etc.). While they’re closed, they’re forgiving all fines for late returns, too.

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      4. Actually my hometown library is very small, I’d honestly be surprised if there are ever more than a dozen people in there at a time when there’s not an event going on. No stairs or elevators either. But people do definitely touch things a lot in public spaces and even if they’re not all there at the same time I’m sure its a risk. I bet they will close at least for a little while. I’ve picked up as many of my books as I can but I was trying to use interlibrary loan for a few holds and am not sure what will happen with those now! Even though my branch is still open so far some of the libraries in our loan system are not. I suppose I should just cancel the last outstanding holds I have for now and stop worrying about it.

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      5. Oh, I’ve been doing that for years, I could probably spend all of 2020 picking up unread books from my own shelves without any worry of running out; I definitely need to stop complaining about whatever I might be missing out on at the library!

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  6. Great review! I’ve read both and unfortunately they both fell short of my expectations. Like you I found Circe lacking in emotion, and for a feminist retelling Circe was also lacking in agency. On the other hand, I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that The Song of Achilles read like fanfiction… Something with the cinematic writing and occasionally purple prose. I ended up giving them both a rounded-up four stars, but just because I love retellings and sped through the books, but on paper they seemed like 6 star reads lol, so they were a huge letdown. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this one though. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thank you! I felt the same about Circe’s agency, as well. And I can understand your point about The Song of Achilles even though I didn’t have quite the same reaction- there’s definitely a distinct style to Song of Achilles which I can see won’t be pleasing to everyone. I think having disliked Circe I had lower expectations this time around, which helped. I had 6-star expectations for Circe and felt very disappointed not to find that experience with it; people tend to have such high hopes for retellings!

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