Sunday, 8 June 2014

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

UK book cover of Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
If you hear a tiny cheer coming from a corner of the blogosphere, don't worry, it's just Charlotte. She's been trying to get one of us (any one will do) to read this ever since she adored it back in April 2013.... wow, April? That's scary. Anyway, she eventually bought me a copy as part of a Ninja Book Swap as apparently I wasn't moving fast enough on my own. However, I now agree with Charlotte wholeheartedly - everybody should read this book.

Plot summary: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

Mild spoilers if you don't know the outcome of the Trojan War. Which you should.

I actually had no idea what this was about before I picked it up, not even that it involved the Seige of Troy. I have no excuse for this, considering the book is called The Song of ACHILLES. If pressed, I think I would have guessed that the book was a new story about a descendant of Achilles, his namesake or an imitation. 

Anyway, I would have been wrong because this is about That Achilles. In a way, it's probably a good thing I hadn't realised, as it would only have delayed my reading it. It's not that I don't find the Trojan War interesting, but it has been done an awful lot - I've read Troy by Adele Geras, The War at Troy by Lindsay Clarke and of course I've seen the Eric Bana movie. I didn't have much desire to read the same story again just yet.

Except The Song of Achilles is different, so different. Instead of being a boring recitation of dates, places and characters, this book focuses almost exclusively on Achilles and his lover as people, not historical/mythological figures. The war goes on in the background, almost - it's happening and it's still explained thoroughly, but mostly in the context of their relationship.  

To put the difference in context, I have never rooted for the Achaens/Spartans before. Usually I hope fiercely that just this once, the city of Troy will remain unsacked. Inevitably, it never does and I feel sad for all the people who lost their home, children who were murdered and women who were raped. I always want Helen and Paris to be happy together and the invaders to just go home.

Well, I still wanted that this time round but suddenly I care an awful lot more about the Greeks. I have never been even remotely bothered about this side before, but I caught myself wishing that they'd hurry up and invade so that Achilles and Patroclus would be safe.

It's told in the first person which allows the atmosphere and tension to just seep from the page. There's a huge contrast between the peaceful scenes with Chiron at the lake to the drama in the midst of battle. It's as if Madeline Miller sat there and observed the whole thing, scrawling notes on a anachronistic pad of paper - I felt every emotion as if I were present.

I wasn't sure how the first person narrative was going to work all the way through to the end, but it's clever and beautiful and amazing... and I cried on a train. Like, actual tears dripping down my face. I'd love to post quotes but they'd ruin everything.

I don't think this review has actually helped much as I'd have achieved much the same thing by posting a picture of myself with a pathetic expression and a wad of tissue. If you take one thing away from this though, let it be that The Song of Achilles is far more than a dusty retelling of the Trojan War - it's a beautiful and realistic story about a demi-god and a human, and their everlasting love.

This book was:

Read Charlotte's review of The Song of Achilles at Lit Addicted Brit.

7 comments:

  1. I agree, this book was so amazing - I cried too, but luckily in the privacy of my own home!

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  2. really a nice stuff. Songs of similar type can be find at songs pk. this blog is good at catching recent things.

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  3. Huzzah! It's beautiful isn't it? Before I read it I thought it might be a bit fusty too, but so many people were saying it was a love story at heart, I gave it a go, and it was so worth it.

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  4. YOU READ IT!! And, more importantly, you loved it! I actually did do some "yey"-ing at my phone when I read this review aswell so that's the level of investment that there was in you enjoying it! I am sorry for not warning you about the ending though - I was tucked up at home when I read the end and I'm pretty sure Andy thought I was losing it. Proper. Tears.

    I wasn't sure at all what I was expected either, to be honest, but it wasn't what I got. I think I only started it because I finished a book when I only had my eReader with me and it was the only book I remotely fancied at the time.

    When I was on holiday, I was craving something similar (especially after we went to an ancient sports arena and looked at this exhibit about Greek sports and stuff, which sounds dull but was actually interesting!) but was a bit wary of the potential for dreeriness...do I want to read either of those Troy books you mentioned?

    Now all I need to do is make sure that Ellie (formerly Bookshop Ellie, that is) reads it too...

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    1. Proper. Tears. I know! It wasn't that my eyes got a bit wet or I sniffed a few times, I cried like a child.

      Well, the Adele Geras book is YA but I did really enjoy it, although it was several years ago. The other is a lot heavier. If I had to recommend one, I'd go for the Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. It's the Odyssey, which is right after Troy, but told from Odysseus' wife's perspective. It's really, really good.

      Agreed. We'll add it to the list of books she MUST read!

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  5. *coughs and quietly removes The Song of Achilles from potential holiday reading pile* I WILL make this book a priority this summer, I promise - but probably not on holiday if it's a weepie. Because I WILL cry, and I'll be hot, and surrounded by people, and it'll give me a headache. So... when I get home again and can cry and recover in peace. THEN I will read it. :)

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    1. Yeah, it's completely not a holiday reading book. Read it when you're at home with a cup of tea and when you don't have to leave the house for the rest of the day. You MUST read it though :)

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