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Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Madeline Miller

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1,303None5,964 (4.13)3 / 577
Title:Song of Achilles
Authors:Madeline Miller
Info:Bloomsbury UK (2012), Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Historical Fiction, E-Book, Greece, Ancient History, Mythology, GLBT, 2012, War, Romance

Work details

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

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Bummers! Greek bummers! Ancient Greek bummers! And, as any scholar of the classics will tell you, that’s the worst kind of bummer.
Trash! Utter trash! Compelling trash! And that’s the worst kind of trash.
Madeline Miller’s ‘The song of Achilles’ is so shockingly bad that at several points I had to wonder if it was some sort of satire, parody or just the result of a bet. For instance, a young man’s sexual awakening is celebrated with a spot of self-pollution in a grove of trees, after which he discovers a fallen branch and decides to fashion it in to a present for his mate. That’s right, he gets wood, and he wants to give his wood to his special friend, after polishing it for a while.
The first half of the book is a love story. Prince Achilles is half god, half human and all hero-in-waiting. He befriends the narrator, the exiled, ex-Prince, Patroclus, and the kids bond, literally. It’s all rather sweet, bashful gazes across the dinner table, assistance with a fig-juggling practice, harp lessons and then straight to the bedchamber. Of course, Achilles’s sea-nymph mother is disapproving of Achilles friendship with Patroclus. Possibly because he’s a bloke, more likely because he’s mortal.
Mediterranean metaphors, not all as subtle as the woody one, abound. Skin at night is as dark as olive, kisses are sweet as figs, jizz is as white as sand on a moonlit beach, that sort of thing. It’s all very romantic. And restrained. As soon as the boys put their hands below the belt, the action stops. Like in boxing.
The prose style is spartan. After all, these are fighters, as well as lovers. Even when they lounge in an olive grove, spitting seed at one another, they do so in short sentences.
The second half of the book is a war story, specifically, some of the siege of Troy.
In the end, this is a tragic (Greek tragedy, and that’s the worst kind of tragedy) fable about celebrity. Achilles may be a god, but his ego is monsterous. He knows he’s good, he wants to be great, he wants to be a legend. From birth he has been fated to be history’s greatest warrior, this knowledge is both spur and burden and he is portrayed as a doomed rock-star demi-god of war with the looks to match.
The book deals with the mythic aspects of ancient Greece in the time of gods and heroes in a fascinatingly straightforward fashion. Gods exist, as do mythical beasts like centaurs. These are not, however, beings encountered in everyday life and those who meet with heroes and demi-gods are overawed, like modern mortals meeting A list celebrities. Petroclus, the most mortal of narrators, effectively conveys the strangeness of this world of gods, magic, warfare and privilege, our guide to an enchanted, dangerous world.
The whole thing is essentially like an extended answer to the question ‘what would the story of Achilles be like if it was reported in today’s tabloid press and celebrity magazines? The love and the war, the huge egos, the beauty and the predictions are given a tabloidesque telling, where short sentences suit.
Maybe that’s what’s so compelling. The war is reported in an immediate fashion, a clash not just of mighty muscles but mighty egos. And then there’s the question, is a woman really worth all this? The ten year siege, the murder and mayhem, the looting and the bloody, bloody warfare. Even with Achilles doing what he was born to do, cutting a bloody swath through the foe, there’s noting heroic about the gore-soaked figure who returns to his tent every evening.
Ultimately, this is a book about destiny, running from it, fulfilling it. All Achilles cares about, Petroclus apart, is poets writing about him, potters making vases about him.
It’s all about fame and celebrity.
So, trash.
Full disclosure, if I had a spare five minutes, I would find myself reaching for the book, eager to see what happened next and, on a train journey, so engrossed was I that on one occasion, I almost missed my stop. Engrossed in utter trash, but engrossed all the same. ( )
  macnabbs | Mar 23, 2014 |
A well done retelling. Romance, war, and politics all told with just enough nuance to not make it salacious or cumbersome. Everything the movie Troy should have been but failed. ( )
  stevewhite71 | Mar 19, 2014 |
This is a retelling of the Greek tale of the Trojan War, specifically the involvement of the hero Achilles. I suppose most of us know the outline of the story, even if we're a bi t more hazy over the details, but this is a fantastic retelling. Told mostly in the first person by Achilles' boon companion, the tale starts when they are young boys, and continues through their teenage years to manhood and death (I don't think that's a spoiler...). The first person telling makes it all very vibrant and immediate. It is a book that is, primarily, about love, ambition, greed and grief - the whole gamut of human emotion is here. While Achilles is half god, Patroclus, his companion, is of more earthy stock. No great high flyers in his ancestry, and he's not a great sucess as a son, but comes into his own as he grows. Throughout the book there is prophecy concerning Achilles (and this avoids the problem of knowing the ending, you all know the ending) but the interpretation of them is not clear. The ending overturns these somewhat in that the expected events after Achilles death don;t occur. What does shows yet another facet of grief and the ability to let go. the last few chapters had me in tears.
I thought this an excellent read. ( )
  Helenliz | Feb 12, 2014 |
This captures the crazed ferocity of The Iliad and Achilles' bond with supposed lover (it is not really explicit in Homer) Patroclus unlike anything I've ever read since Logue's Homer esp. All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad Rewritten (http://www.librarything.com/work/129758).

The contemporary Iliad translations like Robert Fagles' (http://www.librarything.com/work/5057/book/55626030) and Stephen Mitchell's (http://www.librarything.com/work/5057/book/80878876) are both terrific, but are still limited in scope to Homer's text where Patroclus is a fairly minor character and Achilles' motivation for revenge on Hector might seem a bit thin and unknown.

Madeline Miller has built an entire prequel of Achilles' and Patroclus' lives prior to the Iliad and it isn't until Chapter 25 (pg. 271 of 378 in this paperback edition) that the narrative links up with the beginning of Homer. If you never got it (The Iliad) before, all of sudden you can totally buy all of it, the bonds of friendship & love and the savagery of revenge & bloodlust. You'll even buy into the Gods and Immortals as full participants, which probably makes this a magic-realism novel in the contemporary lingo.

Highly recommended! ( )
  alanteder | Jan 31, 2014 |
I'm of two minds about this one. There were some very nicely written parts, but I thought the prose and pacing could be inconsistent. For some reason, while Miller did quite a good job at conjuring up the world in which Achilles and Patroclus lived as children, the siege of Troy never came alive for me in the same way. I never quite could picture the camps in which they lived, the landscape they were inhabiting, the visceral nature of the battlefield. I liked that Miller did the best she could to foreground the female characters of the story without being anachronistic—in Deidameia, Briseis, Thetis, we are shown what is it to be a woman within a thoroughly androcentric, misogynist society. Miller's version of Thetis was perhaps my favourite part of the book—a determined, frightening mother.

But for all that Miller is I think honestly trying to explore gender and sexuality in the Ancient Greek world here, there were some choices she made which discomfited me. Would there have been unease between some Ancient Greeks at a sexual relationship between two mature men which took place at a more or less equal footing? Yes. Not because it was a same-gender relationship, but because one of the men would have to be a 'passive' partner and past a certain age, this was generally speaking considered to be dishonorable.

Yet I was a little bewildered at some of the choices which Miller made about Patroclus' character and his relationship with Achilles. That he may have been considered passive by some (and we have no textual confirmation in the Iliad one way or the other as to who was erastes and who eromenos; in fact I think Patroclus is referred to as being older than Achilles) doesn't mean that he had to have been passive in character. Yet this is the Patroclus Miller writes about. She makes it clear that this version of Patroclus is one who only experiences attraction to other men—and also makes him someone who's not a warrior (though he is one in the Iliad), who prefers to be a healer, who is definitely the less dominant partner in the relationship. Even when he's almost thirty years old, his narrative voice still sounds like that of a teenager, and he moons endlessly over an Achilles who is pretty flat as a character. It made me uneasy, this sort of replication of some of the dodgier gender tropes you find in slash fanfiction. It's definitely a readable book, but I think you could find re-tellings and re-examinations of the Iliad of comparable or better quality in a given year's Yuletide challenge. ( )
  siriaeve | Jan 20, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 122 (next | show all)
That The Song of Achilles offers a different take on the epic story of Achilles and the Trojan War is not, in itself, anything particularly out of the ordinary. People have been putting their own spins on The Iliad from the instant Homer finished reciting it. What's startling about this sharply written, cleverly re-imagined, enormously promising debut novel from Madeline Miller is how fresh and moving her take on the tale is — how she has managed to bring Achilles and his companion Patroclus to life in our time without removing them from their own.
added by Shortride | editUSA Today, Robert Bianco (Mar 12, 2012)
But in the case of Miller, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in classics at Brown, the epic reach exceeds her technical grasp. The result is a book that has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Madeline Millerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Douglas, FrazerNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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To my mother Madeline, and Nathaniel
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My father was a king and the son of kings.
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Short introduction

To the classic Iliad

With misplaced passion.


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Patroclus, an awkward young prince, follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate. Set during the Trojan War.… (more)

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