Book review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline MillerShould I start by telling you that I loved this book?  That I hated myself for racing through it to the finish but that I couldn’t stop myself reading page after page?  That it might just be my new favourite novel of the year (and I’ve read a lot of good books this year)?  Is that setting it up for a fall?

I know how annoying it can be to hear someone raving about a book, but seriously, what’s not to love about poetic writing, a passionate race of people, gods interfering with mortal affairs, and riddling prophecies?

The novel is about the life of Achilles, half-god son of the sea nymph Thetis, and follows him from boyhood through to accepting his fate as the best warrior Greece has ever seen.  We see him through the eyes of his friend Patroclus: an exiled prince and a quiet, awkward boy.  Of course, in this way we also learn much about Patroclus himself, and we also discover how their destinies are irretrievably entwined.

The Song of Achilles is also, in part, a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.  Whether you have some knowledge of ancient Greek mythology or none at all, the story is accessible to everyone; this book really is about enjoying the journey the characters take to get to the final page, not to mention letting the quality of the writing wash over you.  I studied The Iliad at school (and suspect I was the only one in my class who actually enjoyed it) and I must admit I did get a kick out of remembering, with a shock, half-way through, what was going to happen.  I felt I was embracing an old friend after an absence, and rediscovering them in a new way.  However, if you don’t yet know the story of The Iliad, I can almost guarantee you will be moved by the drama and will be rooting for the characters too.

Throughout the book you’ll find a number of prophecies and foreshadowing of the events to come.  Sometimes foreshadowing can, if overdone, be irritating and unnecessary, even detrimental to the reader’s enjoyment of the story.  I found myself nodding while reading The Insatiable Booksluts’ recent blog post on the subject.

In this re-imagining of an ancient legend, however, foreshadowing is inevitable as a) if you’re at all familiar with the story you know what’s about to happen anyway, and b) ancient Greece lived by prophecies; remember this is a time when gods aren’t just spiritual beings but active characters in the drama of life and can completely change the course of events: offer them enough sacrifices and you may win the battle; anger them and your family may be cursed for generations.  Prophecies are respected and they always come true, just not always in the way you, the characters, or even the gods themselves expect.  This in no way damages the reader experience, as far as I’m concerned; not only is it subtly handled but it’s essential in building tension.

……………………

I decided to wait a few weeks to mull over the book before finishing off my review, in case my feelings about it changed at all.  Sometimes I’ll love a book, gush about it, and then in a month’s time I’ll have forgotten most of the content.  However, The Song of Achilles is one of those which I’ve been thinking about on and off ever since I closed it.  I’d read it again today if I didn’t have a pile of new books I really must tackle.  Not to mention the fact that I’ve already persuaded someone to borrow it…

I think you’ll like this book, but I’m almost nervous in case you don’t.  I’m in that place where I want everyone to enjoy the writing and the story as much as I did.  Please, if you read it, let me know what you thought and put me out of my misery!

P.S. Thanks to Savidge Reads for writing the review which made me go and buy The Song of Achilles in the first place!

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