Review: The Song of Achilles, Madeleine Miller

So I’m trying out a new format for reviews, in keeping with the way I actually read. Y’all will have to let me know what you think. I am not wedded to this. It’s just something I’m trying.

The beginning: Patroclus (the beloved of Achilles, you’ll remember) tells the story of his early life, how he is exiled from his home and send to live in Phthia (which is in Thessaly, ugh), where he meets Achilles. They soon become inseparable friends, for reasons Miller isn’t great at making clear, and after they hit puberty they become lovers.  It’s all very sweet and PG-rated (PG-13 maybe), with kisses being trailed down stomachs, but you know where things are going from here.

The major failure of this section of the book, to my mind, is that Achilles needs to be set up to be angrier sooner. When you know the story of the Iliad, and you know the story is heading in the direction of the wrath of Achilles giving rise to woes unnumbered, Achilles has to be angry and prideful fast. And in this he’s not. He’s very innocent in a lot of ways, which — it is possible to mix implacability and innocence in the correct proportions, but it’s hard to get right. I don’t think Madeleine Miller is succeeding.

(Mary Renault did though when she wrote about Alexander and y’all should read Fire from Heaven and you should especially read The Persian Boy okay that’s all about Mary Renault sorry but she is just so awesome the end)

The end: Around the start of the Trojan War, I peeked at the end to see how Madeleine Miller was going to continue the story after Patroclus dies. And oh dear, it seems Patroclus’s spirit is wandering the world unburied, observing everything that’s going down. I initially felt like this was a cheat, but, no, actually, maybe it’s not. If Madeleine Miller does an adequate job of setting up that piece of the Greek belief system before the end of the book, then I will accept this as a clever way of telling a story in which your narrator dies in the middle.

The whole: I was right. The angry Achilles set-up needed to happen sooner. He’s too innocent for the sudden intense anger that comes up when Agamemnon takes back Briseis. It helps a little, but not enough, that Patroclus finds it jarring also.

Okay, look.

If you decide to retell one of the greatest and most enduring stories in all of Western history, you better have a compelling — more importantly, a new — reason to do it. The Song of Achilles is best when Miller plays around at the fringes of the Iliad story, and weakest when she’s retreading familiar ground. Unfortunately she does the latter more often than the former: this is a very, very straight retelling of the stories. A notable exception is the character of Briseis and the friendship she develops with Patroclus, and the sort of den mother position she assumes among the women of the camp. Thetis, Achilles’s sea-nymph mother, is also a good part of the story, and virtually the only part of it that feels like Homer.

More often, though, Miller is painstakingly walking us through the familiar Homer story, and she has a disastrous tendency to smooth out the fierce, destined quality that’s so crucial to the Iliad. (To the Greeks generally, I guess.) You can see she knows it should be there, but she doesn’t manage to convey it, maybe because she’s too focused on the angelically trouble-free love between Achilles and Patroclus. It would have been much more interesting — since she’s focusing on that relationship — if the conflicts that arise at the end between Achilles and Patroclus had always been there. If Patroclus’s love for Achilles had become tinged with fear and weariness, that would have been better, I think. It would have been a good parallel for the way the Greeks began to feel about the Trojan War.

I feel I have reined in my feelings admirably while writing this review, by the way. My notes for the post say, “all feelings feelings feelings with this book and NOT ENOUGH MURDER AND SODOMY why is all this missish timidity WHERE ARE ALL THE MURDERINGS?”

But seriously. Too many feelings. Not enough murderings.

23 thoughts on “Review: The Song of Achilles, Madeleine Miller

  1. Very interesting, all I’ve heard so far is good and I’ve been thinking of getting a copy myself. With what you’ve said however I can see I’d likely like it by default because I’ve not read the Iliad, and reading it sounds sort of necessary.

  2. I have never read any version of a story about Achilles so nothing has spoiled me towards this but you did make me laugh and reminded me that I soooo need to read more Mary Renault!

  3. Ahhh I’m so glad I read your review! I too was pretty bored with the Achilles/Patroclus love affair…like a) why do they even like each other and b) where’s all the passion?! It was such a sad depiction–there was more tension and longing in the movie Troy and their love was only subtext! Just a complete disappointment.

  4. (tinyvoice)I have also never read the Iliad.(/tinyvoice) But I have this one on my shelves, and have also heard mostly good things about it, so maybe being less familiar with the source material will be a bonus?

    Also, your note to self made me giggle, and reminded me of the “Feelings are boring. Kissing is awesome!” t-shirt from Dinosaur Comics.

    • There no need for a tiny voice! Don’t do a tiny voice! Lots of people have not read the Iliad. Just know for when you do eventually get around to it that it’s amazing.

      Also, yeah, I think it probably is helpful not to have the super powerful and awesome version of this story in mind when reading the adaptation of it.

  5. More often, though, Miller is painstakingly walking us through the familiar Homer story, and she has a disastrous tendency to smooth out the fierce, destined quality that’s so crucial to the Iliad. (To the Greeks generally, I guess.)

    This. Absolutely one hundred percent this. Especially smoothing out all the rough edges in Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship. It’s those rough edges that make them a compelling, interesting couple. Flaws are important.

    • Yes! They really are. I went back and read your review again after I wrote mine, and I was pleased that we’d had similar responses to the Achilles-Patroclus thing.

  6. I need to read Mary Renault. I have had her on my wish list for EVER and just have not picked up one of her books. Or perhaps her books are just impossible to find at used bookstores because everyone lurves them?

    Based on your comments about the Iliad above (which, er, I also have not read, but at least I appear to be in good company), I can see why you disliked this book. It’s interesting – I read your negative review of this book (which I really liked) and then I read Biblibio’s negative review of In the Shadow of the Banyan (which I also really liked) and both times, I could completely see where the negative review was coming from, and it was just stuff I hadn’t thought about when I was reading those books. So thanks!

    • You know, if you want, I’d be willing to send you a Mary Renault book (or two or three). I’m in the process of replacing my copies of her books with all matching copies, so I could send you one of the books I have duplicates of. I have duplicates of The King Must Die (the Thesus story; my mother loves this one but it’s not my favorite), The Mask of Apollo (a made-up character, not a retelling of anything), The Persian Boy (Alexander the Great — probably the best of her books, but it’s her second Alexander the Great book, which I think is fine because you can chase down any confusing stuff on Wikipedia; but you might mind), or The Charioteer (this book set during World War II that I ferociously love and read constantly but nobody else likes at all).

      Isn’t that interesting about negative reviews? That happens to me all the time. One of many reasons book bloggers are so cool.

  7. I have read the Odyssey (in high school) but not the Iliad. I kept hearing such great things about The Song of Achilles that despite a lack of strong interest in that era, I was like, “fine! I will put it on my list.” I do feel after reading your review that maybe I should read the Iliad first. Or at the very least, read something by Mary Renault.

    • That’s cool. The Odyssey is way more fun, I admit. I reread it much oftener than I do The Iliad.

      YES TO MARY RENAULT. Seriously, she’s the best. But not The Last of the Wine or Funeral Games, those ones are boring.

  8. I agree – I found it all too YA-ish to begin with, and it only got going in the last quarter (which I did find powerful). I think you hit the nail on the head by pointing to the lack of flaws in their early relationship and the absence of that destined thing. It does matter.

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