Review: “The Song of Achilles” – Madeline Miller

Me? Writing about my favorite book? More likely than you’d think.

As The Song of Achilles has long been one of my all time favorite standalone books, I thought it would only be right to write up my first official review on it. It’s the book that has stuck with me for years– since the very first time I read it on a train from Madrid to A Coruña  during my time as an Au Pair in Spain. I literally buckled the kiddos I was nannying for into their seats, gave them both earbuds for their IPad, and delved head first into Greece circa pre-The Iliad. And I didn’t stop.

Now you might be thinking, Dear God, The Iliad? The one we had to read in highschool? And to that I say, yeah the epic battle between the Greeks and the Trojans that led the Gods to take sides all the way from Olympus. You may think you know the story of the man, Achilles, who’s pride famously led to his own downfall. You may even think you know Patroclus, Achilles’s shadow who’s only virtue that shined brighter than his logic was his fierce loyalty to Achilles. The Trojan war is legend, but The Song of Achilles doesn’t start during the war. 

It starts with a lonely boy named Patroclus who’s been banished from his home and taken in by the king of Phthia and, subsequently, taken in by the king’s only son, Achilles. From the moment they meet, the quiet Patroclus is taken, fascinated by the demi-god Achilles, a boy fated from birth to be great. They become inseparable and much of the first quarter of the book tours through their idyllic childhood and teenage years. The writing during this section is always peaceful, airy as the boys juggle figs and steal off into the night to have quiet adventures; far from the prying eyes of both men and gods. It’s rhythm leaves you angling to lounge out on a white sand beach dune during the golden hour and feel the sun rays on your face. 

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”

But there is always a sense, whether that comes from pointed comments secondary characters in Phthia make, or Miller relying on her audience’s knowledge of the coming events, that makes you know, even as you are reading Patroclus listening to Achilles strum the lute, that their worry-free childhood is coming to an end.

“Name one hero who was happy.”

I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.

“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.

“I can’t.”

“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”

“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.

“I’m going to be the first.”

And it does; the pieces of story that will eventually spawn an epic war are slowly put into motion, and as Patroclus and Achilles grow closer together, so does their inevitable entrance into the war. 

It’s an oddly quiet book for as much emotion that it punches in; fluid, lyrical writing that transcends the page. The reader feels the depth in which Achilles and Patroclus feel for each other: the deep and abiding affection, the uncertainty of the future, the refusal to believe that there is a future not by each other’s side. 

As Achilles says, they are Philtatos. Most beloved. 

And yet, we know the story of the Trojan War. And what The Song of Achilles does so well is fill in those pieces, not just plot points, though having read TSOA, I can reread the Iliad with greater clarity on how we could have gotten from point A to B, but how Achilles and Patroclus’s motivations came to consume each other.

“This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”

When I say the language of the book is exquisite, I mean I could tattoo several lines from it and never bat an eyelash of regret. I actually do have two phone cases with different quotes from the book. And while I wholly believe that the way the story is written should be enough for the entire world to read it, there are also cameos, bi and small, by several other important Greek figures. Gods and Goddesses alike pop into the story to meddle, Odysseus plays a large part in the latter half, the history and legend drips off the page until you think you could stand on a podium recite a collection of Greek history. 

Anyway, I’ve babbled enough, but I truly recommend anyone who has not read this to take the dive. You won’t regret a single second of it. And if you have read it, please go ahead and tell me in the comments below! Email me, phone me, send a carrier pigeon– let’s talk about The Song of Achilles until our throats give out. 5/5.

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