(A quick note: TSOA is not a historical book. Yes there is action and a lot of great historical detail, but the main focus is on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. It’s a love story set in a historical/mythological era.)
“The Song of Achilles”, by Madeline Miller, is the kind of book that lingers well after it’s been read. It is a tragedy, yet knowing this going in did nothing to alleviate the rollercoaster of emotions I felt as I listened to, and then read, this book. (I had to go through it twice before I could sit down to write this review.) This is because Miller utilizes careful poetic language and subtle character development to weave together a tragic love story that also poses the moral question: is a brief life worth honor and glory, or is it better to live a long, obscure life with the one you love?
In TSOA, no word is carelessly used, and almost no paragraph is without a spark of metaphor. It’s rereading the book that helped me realize that sometimes the simplest line or detail can serve to foreshadow the ending. This can also be glimpsed in Patroclus’ frequent references to the past, or to death. The more we progress into the book, the more we know a “death” is coming, without fully comprehending that there will be more than one death, and more than one kind. (SPOILER WARNING: Achilles does die, like his prophecy foretells, but his innocent character dies before he does. It’s this change that leads to his prophecy coming true.) The result of such careful language is a story with a dream-like quality at times, and at others, with the distinct feeling of a long-ass love letter. I am no romantic, but it sucked me into following Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship as it blossomed from friendship, into a life-long partnership.
I have read that some found the language a bit dense and difficult to understand. It definitely takes some getting used to, but once the story picks up, you stop noticing it.
During my second run through the book, I was able to pick up on a few more nuances in Patroclus’ character, and sometimes wondered if his affection for Achilles warped his thinking. There were a few times where I felt he was too forgiving, and he himself is a self-deprecating character. He constantly reminds the reader about his tarnished background (stained by exile). He feels he is not worthy of the other, and only later on in the book does he begin to take pride in his own accomplishments. Yet, we quickly learn that he is not only kind, but gentle in nature. Two traits that are frowned upon in a society where honor and glory are placed above everything else (even love).
Achilles himself is boyishly charming and very innocent. He has never known defeat or rejection, and has many traits considered ideal in a “hero”. Speed, strength, charisma, and, well, the looks. Sadly, he was not ready for the world’s cunning. I think one of the most tragic things about the story (besides the ending) was seeing how the war, and the expectations of others, slowly warped Achilles into someone who became unrecognizable at the end. He allowed the thinking of others to influence his actions, instead of focusing internally like Patroclus did. One wanted to be loved by all, while the other only cared about one person.
All of this said, one struggle I did have with TSOA is the treatment of women. It might have been historically accurate, but god was it painful to read. Women in this book are portrayed as items and/or cattle. They are spoils of war, or chess pieces for political agendas. If you are a feminist, be ready to cridge and scream “what the fuck?” more than once. (I’m sure it was painful for Miller to write!) Even now, I can’t think of one woman who didn’t get f**ked over in the end.
In all, The Song of Achilles is a multilayered book about love, honor, loss and the choices we make. It’s one hell of an emotional ride, but worth it and then some. If you do decide to give it a chance, let me know!