Book: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Narrator: Frazer Douglas
BECHDEL TEST: FAIL-By construct, this book fails as it has a male narrator and he is present for pretty much all the conversations.
Content Warnings: War, death, violence, misogyny, abduction, abandonment, blood depictions, child abuse, human sacrifice, human trafficking, murder, plague (mentioned, graphic), rape, self-harm, slavery, torture
After reading Madeline Miller’s most recent release, Circe, last year and loving it, I wanted to try Miller’s debut novel as I’d heard so much praise for it. Unfortunately The Song of Achilles didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Whilst I loved her writing just like Circe, I found Achilles and Patroclus quite underdeveloped as characters, the pacing was incredibly slow and I had a lot of issues with the way the narrative dealt with female characters, quite a surprise to me as she did so well with Circe. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.
Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” is everything Patroclus is not—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess—and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative connection gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper—despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.
So I’ll start with the thing that bothered me most in this book, and as usual, we’re back with old friend, PACING. I know, I come back to this one time and time again, but it really is so crucial in my enjoyment of a book and it makes such a difference when it’s done right. The Song of Achilles manages to be both incredibly slow paced, and yet also go too fast at the same time, which I know sounds confusing but I’ll explain what I mean! It takes ages to get into the action, the actual Trojan War part so in that respect, the book moves along quite slowly. However, there are a lot of skips forward in time, both at the beginning of the book, and during the Trojan War, and these parts felt like they were too fast paced, as it made it hard for me to keep track of where I was in the narrative. Both of these pacing problems together, led to the story feeling somewhat disjointed and uneven. Either the book needed to be longer and the Trojan War parts more fleshed out, or the initial part of Achilles and Patroclus growing up needed to be trimmed, preferably both!
And then we have the narrator, always crucial with an audiobook. For me, Frazer Douglas’ narration was one of my big problems with this book, as I found his reading kind of flat and monotone, which isn’t really great for keeping a reader hooked into the story. His voices for the women in the book were also terrible, and that kind of took me out of the story.
On the upside, as with Circe, Madeline Miller’s writing was lovely, it had such a nice flow to it and so many really gorgeous lines.
Both Achilles and Patroclus felt underdeveloped to me, they both seemed to inhabit the same character archetypes throughout the book: Achilles, the great warrior and Patroclus, the weak, but kind and caring lover, and I didn’t feel like either showed much growth throughout the book. They both felt fairly flat to me, and that stopped me from really caring about either of them. Despite this, I did manage to feel quite invested in their relationship, as Miller’s writing was able to show their connection well, so that part of the book was well done. However, I think herein lies the problem: Miller was great at developing the connection between the two of them, and making the romance believable, but the pair are never really allowed to developed as individuals, so as a couple: great, can totally get behind them, but Achilles and Patroclus as individual people: stuck in their one-dimensional archetypes.
The intense focus on Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship also makes the story feel somewhat lacking in plot, as all the attention is focused on developing their relationship and less on important plot beats, like the war.
Patroclus also seemed to do a massive 180 at the end and suddenly become an impressive warrior, largely because the plot required it, which didn’t really fit with how Miller had established his character up to that point.
Also, having said that I liked Patroclus and Achilles’ romance (and I did!), I did find it a little cringey Patroclus mooning over Achilles’ great beauty all the time!
Completely unrelated, but Agamemnon was categorically THE WORST in this book.
Then we come to my other big problem of the book: the treatment of the women. The women in this book definitely get the short end of the stick, being raped, abandoned, sacrificed, I could go on. Whilst yes, this is accurate to women in Greek mythology, this is a retelling! We can do things differently here. I mean she has Patroclus rescue the slave girls but we can’t lose the rape scenes? REALLY? I mean Briseis gets a much better deal than in the myths, but that’s not saying much. I also felt terrible for poor Deidamia, who is basically used as a pawn by Thetis, gets pregnant and is shipped off and abandoned by her family.
I would also have liked the female characters to have more depth. Briseis was a really interesting character, but all we really get of her is that she’s Patroclus’ friend, nothing more. Helen of Troy gets merely a passing mention, and she’s pretty darn important in the whole war thing (even though yes, the Trojan war was more about land grabbing than love). I know this is Achilles’ and Patroclus’ story but I was a little disappointed that Miller didn’t give the female characters (few though they were) more depth as I know how well she did this in Circe.
Speaking of the rape scenes, Deidamia forcing Patroclus to have sex with her, was NOT IT and totally unnecessary for the story. The same thing happens with Achilles, he’s also forced into having sex with her, and it’s not acknowledged at all how wrong that is.
For a retelling, I was kind of disappointed that Miller told the story very straight, in Circe, she interweaves a lot of other Greek myths into the narrative and really plays with her story, but this felt like a very straight rehash of the events of the Trojan War and I would have liked it if she’d been a bit more creative with the story.
One of the most important moments of the book, where Patroclus dies (it’s a thousands of years old myth, so I don’t consider this a spoiler, you know from pretty early on in the book that both Achilles and Patroclus will die), felt so glossed over, it was covered in a matter of a few sentences, which took away from what is meant to be an incredibly emotional moment in the book.
I also found it really weird that the story carried on, after that moment? I mean when your narrator is dead, the story is over! It made the actual ending feel super anti-climactic because it felt like Patroclus’ death was a more natural end-point.
For me, this book definitely suffered from hype, I think my expectations were just too high, especially after loving Circe so much. Generally I find that the debut book is never an author’s best work, and I think Miller improved a lot between this and Circe. This wasn’t a bad book, despite my complaints, there were quite a few things I liked about it, but the poor pacing, flat characters and the way the female characters were treated really did take away my enjoyment of an otherwise fairly solid book.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of my second August audiobook read, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (yes, pure coincidence that I read two books by authors named Madeline back to back!). I’m down to five reviews in my backlog now, and ideally I’d like to try and have it cleared by the end of this month, but we’ll see how things go!