The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: Although this book is about the Trojan War the first half concentrates on the growing relationship between the half-god Achilles and a disgraced young prince. In refreshing, modern prose this book makes the subject matter very reader-friendly indeed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408816035

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

Shortlisted for Romantic Novelists Association Award 2013: The Epic Romantic Novel

Before I started the book, I looked out my copy of Homer's The Iliad and skim-read its one page introduction (yes, yet another book in my 'must-read' pile but it's been on it for about ahem, ten years). Having said that, it is rather dry and scholarly which didn't really inspire me to get on with this book as I wasn't really looking for a 'heavy' read, especially on a nice summer's day. Onwards ...

So I was both relieved and delighted to find out very early on that Miller has chosen a modern take on an ancient tale. As early as page 6, I knew I was going to enjoy this book. The novel opens in ancient Greek times with a young boy called Patroclus. He's a prince and presumably destined for great things but an unexpected and tragic event sees his life turned around. He's exiled from his family. To give a flavour of those times, there's a peppering of famous and perhaps less-famous names: Zeus, Perseus, Heracles, Philoctetes, for example. There are many more, straight out of Greek mythology: gods, half-gods and those mere mortals, otherwise called humans.

Soon, the paths of Achilles and this banished prince (who is a mere mortal) will cross with devastating results. Miller takes her time to tell us how these vastly different two boys with equally vastly different destinies strike up a friendship. They josh around, swim together, climb trees etc and do all the normal and innocent things pre-teen boys would do. Then puberty hits ...

Miller wants to share her knowledge with her readers which is understandable and I certainly was eager to find out more. But she does it in a beautifully understated and restrained manner. Rather than spouting out all she knows regardless of whether it's relevant to this particular story, she reins in. In fact, forget ancient Greece and the famous tale for a moment, this novel can simply be enjoyed as an exploration of friendship between two individuals of the same sex and of its testing, down the line. Add in the exoticism, the riches, the history and this book certainly delivers on all levels.

Many gods dip in and out of the story. We know their names. One who is particularly prominent and pertinent to the story is Thetis, Achilles' mother. She just happens to be a sea goddess. She adores her son (we're told in rich detail of how Achilles was conceived ) but she hates his new best friend, Patroclus. She can barely breath the same air as him and thinks him unfit as a 'friend' for her wonderful son.

As the boys grow up the subject of marriage is mentioned particularly for the handsome, virile and much-loved Achilles. But is he interested in taking a wife? Right from the start I loved the underdog, Patroclus. I could see through his awkwardness, his clumsiness and his lack of social grace. I could see that he had a good heart - despite his bloody past.

A good portion - around half of the book - centres around the special bond between these two young men. But their idyllic world takes a nasty turn as the Trojan War creeps nearer. Miller tells us why this event occurs.

This is a terrific novel. Miller's style (uncomplicated) and her language (modern) is a winner. This book, in my opinion, deserves a wide readership. I was enthralled from beginning to end. I shall now tackle the dustier The Iliad with vigour (well, perhaps restrained vigour) thanks to Milller for whetting my appetite. Highly recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard.

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