Madeline Miller’s lauded Illiad retelling is experiencing a tiktok-fueled resurgence. It deserves all its accolades; it’s beautiful and touching and tragic. But it left me wanting a lot more. Here’s why.
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. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, 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’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
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.
THE BEAUTY OF GOOD WRITING
It’s been said many times before, but despite knowing exactly what is going to happen, the end brought tears. I love to read Madeline Miller because of her writing—it feels spare and it’s easy to read, but she has a gift for choosing the right things to describe so that you feel and smell and see everything vividly. Tone tone tone. Her similes take my breath away. Her sentences are art. The love story in this book is like a (tragic) symphony. Reading Miller’s prose is never hard, and it’s always enjoyable.
That said… I started with Circe. One of the reasons I loved that novel so much was that it was, well, novel. It was new. I didn’t know very much about Circe, outside of what I’d read in the Odyssey. The characterization pulled me in. Circe is still one of my favorite novels, period.
In Song of Achilles, I struggled a little to connect to the characters, despite the obviously fresh *cough* gay perspective. To be honest, the end of the Illiad has never really made sense to me, and even with the love story in a central position, I didn’t get it. I appreciate Miller’s reasons for choosing to write from Patroclus’ point of view, but his life is simply less interesting than Achilles’.
Plus, Patroclus isn’t exactly an objective observer. He’s mired in his own angsty love. I wanted to see much more of Achilles’ relationship with his mother. I wanted Patroclus and Achilles to fight, or at least dig a little deeper into their differences and disagreements. Achilles’ questionable decisions toward the end feel unearned—is that because Patroclus ignored his faults and put him on a pedestal, or because these faults appeared suddenly, because…that’s how the plot is supposed to happen? That’s not answered. Either way, I just didn’t get it. Achilles hardly ever mentions fame, his mother, or any of the other theoretically central pieces of his character.
There simply isn’t enough space for understanding Achilles’ motivations where they don’t concern Patroclus.
I was really hoping for more conflict with Achilles in general—his pride, his legacy, his fate, the people around him pulling him in different directions. We’re never even sure how he feels about being Aristos Achaion.
RECOMMENDATIONS, AND A PASSIVE-AGRESSIVE SIDEBAR
Overall, I do recommend this book. It’s a quick read, keeps you hooked, has beautiful writing. It’s dramatic and vivid. Only, it might leave you wanting more. It certainly left me wanting more. Somehow, it left me crying for people who still felt like strangers. Plus, it’s a great way to get into this genre, whether you are coming from the Percy Jackson Series or from denser historical fiction.
p.s. After I finished, I re-watched Troy — the Brad Pitt version. And despite getting literally all the details and some of the biggest things wrong, the ending of that movie still makes more sense to me than Song of Achilles . I understand why Brad Pitt’s Achilles does the things he does, and how he feels about himself and about others. The writing is a crushed handful of peanuts compared to Madeline Miller, but I mean…the people are beautiful…
p.p.s. not giving spoiler warnings because um. The Illiad one of the most famous stories in the world. If that’s elitist…I don’t know, sue me.