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Literary Fiction Review: 'The Song of Achilles' by Madeline Miller


RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals...

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.


And so continues my run of gushing reviews.  Actually, reading so many fabulous books in a row is making my review writing life so much harder!  I always find books I loved the hardest to review, although I don't know what it says about me that I find it easier to rant acerbically than gush lovingly.  

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus, a young man that finds himself shunned by his father and exiled to live with King Peleus in Phthia.  Through the first few chapters, I was immensely frustrated by Patroclus.  He's rather wimpy, quite self-pitying and could generally do with a good shake.  Achilles, demi-god that he is, positively glows in comparison.  As their relationship develops, though, it's this balance that makes them so beautiful to read about;  Achilles is the greatest warrior of his generation while Patroclus can barely wield a spear but Patroclus is sensitive where Achilles is almost ignorant.  Fiction could do with more couples like them - they don't always agree and aren't blinded by the other's sheer brilliance, they bicker and argue and yet it's clear that they always love each other.  Really, the characterisation is impeccable and Achilles and Patroclus may well be my favourite literary couple ever.  

I also loved the angle from which I got to read about the mythology surrounding the Trojan War.  I knew roughly why it started ("the face that launched a thousand ships" and all that...) and I'd been beaten over the head with the story of the Trojan horse at school but I'd never thought that the myth would stretch to the actual fighting of the war that spanned years and with which the Gods persisted in interfering.  The fraying tempers of Achilles and Patroclus after days of fighting on the sand and the bitter rivalries between the various Greek kings there to make their name made the story of a war very gripping and very moving indeed.

For a story with a hefty cast of characters, there are still many that stand out (other than Patroclus and Achilles, obviously).  There are gods, demi-gods and mortal kings, warriors and sons, many with names that are not too dissimilar.  After a few chapters, though, the characters are chiselled out enough that they're easy to keep straight.  A special mention should also go to Odysseus.  His wit and intelligence make him as light a relief as you're likely to find on a battlefield and I would be one of the first in the queue to buy a book that followed this particular representation of Odysseus through the end of the Trojan War and his voyage home.

In the interests of balance, I've sat and tried to come up with some downsides.  I suppose that there are a couple of sex scenes that might offend particularly sensitive readers.  Sorry but that's the best (worst?) I can come up with.

I read the last few chapters through the blur of tears.  Actually, that makes it sound as though I welled up in a dignified and elegant manner.  I didn't.  I was pretty much sobbing my way through the final pages, eyes and nose streaming while I tried my best to breathe without snorting too badly.  Unattractive stuff but a sure fire sign that The Song of Achilles had burrowed its way under my skin and wasn't going to move on without a fight.  I had an idea of what was coming and still Madeline Miller managed to break my heart.  

Overall:  If you want your heart trodden upon by human and god alike, this is the book for you.  If you own a copy of this and haven't read it yet, go and rescue it from your shelves and start it this weekend.  Truly, epicly wonderful.


Date finished:  19 January 2013
Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World WideFormat:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in April 2012

Read an excerpt HERE

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