#IMWAYR: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Update (4/2/2022): I typically participate in blogging groups that review kids’ books, but sometimes, I do end up reading adult books like this one. In the past, I have typically labeled those books as MG or YA when I review them, primarily because I still want my typically blogging audiences to see them! However, this has become confusing, so I have decided to re-label these books as adult books, while leaving the reviews in their original format. Thank you for your consideration!
(Update [7/26/2021]: One of the MMGM bloggers I really enjoy, Rosi Hollinbeck, is recommending and giving away an ARC of Kate DiCamillo's new book, The Beatryce Prophecy, and because she generously awards extra chances to giveaway entrants who share her post, I invite you all to check out her review and giveaway here! And now, I'll keep my fingers crossed that I win a copy! ;) )
I have returned from a 5-night vacation this past week that was just lovely! We spent 4 nights at the beach and a 5th night visiting my grandparents (of whom my grandfather is a loyal and valued reader of this blog!). Some random vacation thoughts:
- The beach is just the most beautiful thing ever. That is all.
- Very few people are still wearing masks, and I really hope that all those people are vaccinated! But something tells me a lot of them may not be.
- We stayed on our last night at Homewood Suites, and they are surprisingly nice! Pretty décor, no creepy wall art like I saw at a certain Embassy Suites last year, and a full kitchen so you can cook if you need to.
- I set up a Roku for my grandparents, and a quick complaint/warning: someone at Roku decided that they should stop including power adapters in the box! I get that it's more eco-friendly not to include the adapter if people already have a little USB brick to use, but at least put a MASSIVE warning on the front of the box so you can go buy another one while you're at the store if you don't have an extra! We found an extra one to use, but still.
- I didn't read NEARLY as much as I thought I would. It is truly hilarious how much I overpacked with regards to books. To be fair, I re-read one of my favorite books (which I'll be blithering about endlessly next week), and I tried to read it carefully and without rushing. But still, I read that, four picture books, and 15 pages of another novel, and that's it. The other 2 novels and the graphic novel I packed remained untouched.
- On our last night of vacation, I spent my time right before bed scrolling through 900 picture books (not an exaggeration—that's the actual number) on Libby to find ones I wanted to read. I've resigned myself to the fact that Libby won't have what you all recommend (at least if you borrow through my comically underfunded public library), so I'm trying to track down books that are at least available and that might be new to you all!
This book is really more of an adult book than a YA book, but I have 4 reasons why I'm pretending it is YA for the sake of putting a review up. One: it was recommended to me by a young adult. Two: I am a young adult, so my enjoyment of it is at least somewhat relevant. Three: This book took me way too long to read for me to skip reviewing it at all. And four: I am simply not going to feel guilty (I tell myself) for recommending a fantastic book to people who will enjoy it! So on with the review!
(Also, be aware that this book includes sex, rape with varying levels of description, and a hefty amount of violence—it's pretty much par for the course for a war in ancient Greece, but it's still worth noting.)
I wasted too much time between reading this book and writing the review, so forgive me if it is a mess—I am quite sure that it will not do this incredible book justice. To save my energy, let's start off with the publisher's description (which is kind of vague but actually gets at the book's heart quite nicely):
Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful— irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Something I want to be clear about in this review is that I know nothing about Greek mythology/literature. Nothing. It's honestly kind of embarrassing how uninformed I am—I just discovered while pulling this book up on Amazon that this book "reimagines" The Iliad, and, well, I would never have noticed, because guess what? I don't know what The Iliad is about. I'm not saying this to brag about how uninformed I am. I'm saying this because I suspect it's very possible that you, too, have minimal interest or background knowledge in Greek mythology and Greek stories. Although the author of this book, Madeline Miller, has a scholarly background in this kind of field, and I suspect she would be the first person to tell you how much can be ascertained and discovered from those kinds of studies, she graciously puts aside whatever extreme personal interest and investment she has in this field in order to write a book that is completely self-contained and requires zero prior knowledge to understand or enjoy. So I think that bears noting.
A friend of mine with excellent taste in books recommended The Song of Achilles to me, and it took me several weeks to read it. In part, that was because I had some personal stuff going on that was unrelated to the book, but in part, it was because it took me a while to get interested in the story. So let's talk about the story structure for a moment. Patroclus, not Achilles, is the narrator and protagonist of this story. We meet him as a young child, a somewhat obscure prince, made insecure by his father's distaste for him. After the description's "act of shocking violence" (which luckily doesn't make Patroclus any harder to like, it bears noting), he is exiled (still as a child) to Peleus's castle, which is where he meets Achilles (who is also still a child). I keep mentioning that they are children because the book really gets interesting once Patroclus and Achilles become adults. But that means we spend a pretty solid chunk of the book following them through their teenage years, and during all of that time, I struggled to get particularly invested in the two of them. But around the halfway mark of the book, things start to become extremely compelling. And importantly, all of that exploration of these two characters in their younger years does start to make its importance known—I felt that, as difficult as it was to maintain my attention during those portions, they were essential in actually understanding and appreciating Patroclus, Achilles, and the two's relationship.
I'd like to talk about Patroclus for a moment. As different as these two characters are, from a storytelling perspective, Patroclus (again, the story's narrator and protagonist) reminds me of Ari from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And the main reason why is that Patroclus, like Ari, believes that he is perfectly average. Subpar, even. (And don't we all?) Patroclus presents himself to the reader in accordance with his own self-concept—as a quiet sidekick perfectly content to stand in the shadow of someone he cares deeply about (in this case, Achilles). And yet, similar to how Benjamin Alire Sáenz sets up Aristotle and Dante, Madeline Miller writes The Song of Achilles in such a way that it slowly becomes clear that (a) Patroclus is actually an exceptional, compassionate, brave individual and (b) Patroclus is completely deserving of the attention of even Achilles, a literal demigod—their gorgeously depicted, layered relationship is surprisingly convincing. Patroclus may appear bumbling or incompetent as a child, yet as an adult, it becomes clear that he is surprisingly talented in a variety of areas. And Patroclus may seem to those in the story like Achilles's little pet, but it becomes clear that Patroclus brings just as much to the two's relationship as Achilles does.
I'm really just thrilled by the fact that I have zero clue about the order I want to discuss topics today, so I'm going to talk about Achilles (and then realize all the things I should have talked about beforehand). Most of us have a vague sense of Achilles's deal in the Greek myths—he was prideful, he got shot in the heel and died, they named a tendon after him, blah blah blah. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Madeline Miller paints a richer, more complex portrait of Achilles. Achilles, as is clear from the publisher's description, is a demigod—his father is human, and his mother is a goddess. He is gifted with a skill in fighting and even warfare that far surpasses that of any human being in this story. To the chagrin (well, more like coldly bridled fury) of his goddess mother, Thetis, Achilles forms a connection with Patroclus while they are both children, and that connection remains strong as the two become adults and Achilles goes off to war. This is where things get interesting. Achilles is a really complex character—he is definitely proud, but he isn't ridiculous or narcissistic or anything like that. He is confident in his own abilities, but he cares for other people (particularly Patroclus) and endears himself to the audience arguably faster than Patroclus does. Madeline Miller doesn't simply bring a ridiculous theme to the table of "don't be prideful"—rather, she uses this character trait of Achilles as just one facet in a complex, difficult situation.
That situation is the whole "Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny" and "the cruel Fates will test them both as never before" thing. I'm trying not to give too much away (and possibly overcompensating by not making any sense at all), but I will say a few things. When Achilles goes to war and Patroclus accompanies him, Achilles is doing it essentially for fame. And that sounds super-vain, but there are some VERY IMPORTANT DETAILS I am leaving out because they are spoilers that cast the whole thing in a very different light. Now, here's something I've noticed (and heard other people mention as well): The Song of Achilles takes themes that are pretty common...and spins them into something breathtakingly original. Achilles's reputation is on the line throughout the war that forms the crux of the entire book. But Madeline Miller takes the reasonably simple idea that, you know, war is bad and adds so many layers to it—namely, if Achilles's incredible legacy is simply for destroying the lives of others, for tearing families and civilizations apart in the pursuit of a goal in name only, is that really a legacy worth leaving? So it's not just pacifism—it's also an exploration of what we leave behind when we're gone, something that seems to have been a consideration in Greek life but that many people today, for better or worse, generally don't consider. We seem content to mostly disappear after death, but if you start to think about how you will be remembered, things get profound and complicated really fast. And the whole "cruel Fates will test them both" thing—it's not exactly a crazy idea that people can find themselves in situations where none of the choices are good ones. But Madeline Miller takes such care, displays such craft, and includes such insight in her depiction of these tests—situations where the flaws of Achilles, and Patroclus, and really every character in the story become terrifyingly apparent, situations where every promise has a hidden caveat, situations where characters do horrible things and yet you can barely fault them for it, because in such a twisted world, all the choices work out the same way. There's a quote that I would include if I hadn't lent my copy of the book to someone else, but basically, the book asks if it is better to kill an enemy than an ally if either serves both roles to different people—and the answer is that it doesn't matter. Killing either one is awful. And that kind of encapsulates the whole book—these characters are taking a multiple-choice test where every answer is wrong and a low score results in someone being brutally murdered. They're having a blast, y'all.
When I started this book, I could barely keep my attention on the pages (and if you have to skim some of Madeline Miller's gorgeous-but-dense imagery and description, I won't blame you—I did the same at times). But by the second half of the book, I was so wrapped up in the impactful, never-ending events, and the complex characters, and the themes that I wouldn't be able to do justice if I read this book 10 times (and I suspect this is one of this books where re-reads are essential if you want to have any thoughts beyond "Wow"). The ending of The Song of Achilles really stuck out to me, namely because, in 50 pages that I couldn't pry my eyes off of, Madeline Miller—without any resistance from you as the reader—completely reframes your own expectations for the ending. (You'll see what I mean.) The ending is messy, and real, and genuinely rewarding to the audience, and it is the perfect way to end this story. If you take away only one thing from this disorganized review, it should be this: The Song of Achilles is difficult to read at times and immensely difficult to sum up. But it is skillfully written, engrossing, impactful, and shockingly wise, and there's a reason why it has remained popular 9 years after its release in 2012. This book is one you won't want to miss—even if you can't explain it any better than I can, you'll know as well as I do that it is one of a kind, in the best possible way.
My rating is: Stunning!