Song of Achilles
Genre: Historical fiction
It is rare that a book of such elegant and frugal writing makes it to the mainstream, especially considering that at the heart of it there is a gay relationship. When I say frugal writing, I mean that Miller has managed to capture concepts without flowery, clumsy language, with sentences like “his music was as bright as lemons”. Simple, descriptive.
Throughout, the reader is treated to a view of Greece as truly, poetically epic as the original Iliad and Odyssey but with an incredibly human, sensual feel. More than the story of the half-god Achilles, we see the story through Patroclus, the companion of Achilles from boyhood until the tenth year of the battle of Troy. The story reaches into the life of an army, the treatment of women, the vast mythology and landscape of Greece with a voice so heartfelt and dignified that it sweeps the reader into the coastlines of Greece, into the military encampment on the banks of Troy, the rocky cliffs of Pthia.
For a debut author, Miller’s voice is already stunningly developed, avoiding the pitfalls that many debut authors suffer from. She does build Achilles up, but treats him as we all should when his pride begins to overshadow the Troy campaign. A rudimentary knowledge of the story of Troy will give any reader the ending, but the way Miller reaches that ending is truly magnificent and heartbreaking.
To return to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus: a great deal of people might be hesitant to pick up the book for fear of, well, lots of sexy man-love. But fear not, ye prudes. It is always tastefully written and usually happens off-screen. While it is Achilles’ song, I feel its actually more about Patroclus than his famous lover. And it is for Patroclus that we cheer, that we feel. Runty Patroclus, exiled son and plain face amongst many young, stronger boys, it is he that is picked out by the godling. Achilles changes, but Patroclus grows, and it makes him infinitely more interesting than his storied companion.
I still think about the book, though I finished it a few days ago. I think of the gentle, beautiful Briseis, of Chiron the teacher, of angry, prideful Agamemnon, charming Odysseus and Thetis, the scornful and powerful goddess mother of Achilles. Each one rendered in so many words, with such colour and vivacity that I am sure I will remember them for many months to come.
Many people would classify this as a literary title, and perhaps it is in that it calls on classical literature, but I feel it is a very accessible and beautiful read, and definitely a delight for anyone who enjoys a romance that does not reek of cheese and patchwork writing. The word ‘epic’ has been ruined by the internet, used to describe everything from an in-game character to lawn chairs, but without being two thousand pages long and immensely tangled, this is an epic. It is epic because it spans the breadth of war, heroes, love fought for and lost, the machinations of countries and the intervention of gods. It is beautiful and elegant and touching, and I reckon Miller is going to be a name to watch in the next few years.