Book Review: Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

‘Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”‘

Reading Ages: 13+ 
Category: Historical/Mythological Fiction
Overall Rating: ★★★★★

This novel has been on my reading list since its publication, it would seem, and I was led to have high expectations of it. Selecting but one single quote as evidence of Madeline Miller’s excellence was a hard task and this is evidence enough of my instant adoration of The Song of Achilles.

Having studied parts of the Iliad a couple of years ago in Classical Greek (in particular, sections on Hector and Andromache), I was already enthralled by the linguistic quality of the original Greek and the magic it seemed to engender in translators’ adaptations of it. The majesty of The Song of Achilles‘ heritage was happily not lost in Miller’s well-paced and passionate prose. It has been a long while since I have read a book quite so un-put-down-able. Her great control over sweeping metaphors and intimate dialogue alike exemplifies the absolutely astounding quality of writing maintained throughout. It is safe to say that even knowing what would happen, I cried solidly through the last four chapters.

Somehow equally vital to the crafting of this book, however, is the plotting, which Miller has taken to expertly. The Iliad is a lengthy and often confusingly laid-out saga, and to compress it into a three hundred and fifty page action-romance takes consummate skill, especially to do it in such a way that it feels entirely natural to the reader.

For all the praise, however, there are some minor criticisms. At times, I felt that the pace did in fact drift a little; huge swathes of time passing in mere paragraphs is acceptable to a certain extent, but it does become frustrating after a while, and certainly frustrated me quite a bit. I perhaps would have wanted something more of an exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship on a more human level – the completely non-problematic ‘soulmates’ idea is very Romantic, but lacks bite. To see something more raw and less perfect would have been interesting, even if but for moments.

Despite this, I would recommend this novel to anyone with even the remotest interest in Classics – if not for the story itself then at least for the intrigue of the genre and approach to a retelling of one of the seminal pieces of Classical literature. It is a joy to read, and earned its five stars resolutely.

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