‘The Song of Achilles’ Review

I’m a huge lover of Greek mythology so when some people on Goodreads organised a readalong I quickly agreed to join. I usually love seeing new spins on old ideas, and I was looking forward to seeing a new twist on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that fit in with The Iliad. Unfortunately I found it lacking in many respects and I was ultimately left feeling disappointed, especially because it was an award-winner and came with lots of glowing praise.

First off I mostly liked the writing style. It wasn’t up to the standard of Homer but it flowed easily and a lot of the descriptions were quite poetic. I liked the scenes with the other Greek heroes, especially Odysseus, who was probably the best character in the whole thing.  I’m glad there was at last a little reference to the Homeric style with a single use of ‘dawn, fresh and rosy fingered’. I also loved the foreshadowing with Hector and the coldness of Thetis, that particular characterisation highlighted the difference between gods and men. 

But….some of the language and dialogue was too contemporary (the couple of instances of the word “fucking” took me out of the story completely. The dialogue was actually one of the weakest aspects of the story, Patroclus seemed to whimper a lot and seemed to repeat, “I don’t know,” frequently. 

There were some liberties taken with the events of The Iliad/ I can see why she changed them for the story she wanted to tell, but I think I would have found it more interested had she worked around the events of The Iliad rather than just changing them, it seems a bit like taking the easy way out. For example, Briseis is now treated as nothing more than a war prize, which makes Achilles seem rather stubborn and petulant for withdrawing from the war. Both Achilles and Patroclus largely stay the same throughout the book, which I think is surprising given that they’re such rich characters and it seems a waste that there was little development.

Patroclus was quite lovesick and swooned over Achilles for much of the book. It didn’t strike me as a deep, epic kind of love, and Achilles seemed quite distant and petulant a lot of the time. A lot of time passed in the novel, but it never felt like they really changed from their early adolescent selves. As such the epic love story felt quite shallow and I never really saw why the godlike Achilles would fall so easily and so exclusively in love with Patroclus. I would have liked Patroclus to appear braver, I think the story would have been served better if he had shown to be joining Achilles on the battlefield and fighting alongside him,.

I also felt that there were some 20th century attitudes creeping in. I don’t think homosexuality was as big a deal as the author makes out. As far as I understand relations between soldiers was fairly common, and the shame came more from the roles in the relationship (who was passive and who was the more dominant one) rather than the relationship itself, but it was never stated which one had which role (although it’s difficult to see Patroclus being the dominant one). I also don’t believe that monogamy was the be-all and end-all, and plenty of Kings had concubines. The attitudes presented in the novel seemed false.

As for the ending…well…

Walking off hand in hand is a nice image…but it really doesn’t make sense given what the Underworld represents, and how Achilles is portrayed in The Odyssey and it just makes the story seem rather hollow, and it doesn’t feel like it fits in with The Iliad at all. With stories like these I like to be rewarded by knowing the text it’s linked to, but here I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not been familiar with The Iliad.

It was a light read and as such the themes present in the work (love, war, the helplessness of men against their destiny) don’t linger.  When you write a book that directly links in with The Iliad you have to make sure it’s very impressive and it doesn’t quite reach the right levels for me.

– Man of Yesterday

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9 thoughts on “‘The Song of Achilles’ Review

  1. Have you read ‘Ransom’ by David Malouf? (I think that’s his name.) It was an interesting take on a small portion of ‘The Iliad’. It got some mixed reviews but I enjoyed it. I like books based on various myths and legends. I find it interesting to see the ways in which authors interpret them.

    I agree that these things should be given the attention and depth they deserve as they are stories that many people know. I wouldn’t really be interested in a book with weak characterisation.

    Great post!

    • Thanks! I haven’t heard of Ransom, but I’ll go and check it out. I also heard good things about an author called Mary Renault who does interpretations of Greek mythology.

      Yeah, I think I could forgive the changes made from The Iliad if the romance was strong, but it wasn’t. It basically started off as them experimenting then suddenly they were in love and it didn’t ring true. I’m quite surprised it took the author ten years to write!

      • I haven’t read anything by Mary Renault. I’ll have to read something of hers. I’m really interested to see what other people are doing because the novel I’m writing is based on African mythology. I want it to have something of a fairytale feel to it. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • Oh cool your novel sounds interesting! I don’t really know anything about African mythology. How far have you got with it? My next novel is going to be a fairytale, I’ll probably start it this weekend.

      • I didn’t know anything about it either but I’m fascinated by mythology and Africa has so many different cultures and stories that I wanted to learn more about. It’s allow going because I’m world building. I’m creating my own world which is similar to Africa but is inhabited by spirits and magic. It’s pretty fun.

        That’s so cool that you’ll be writing a fairytale! It’s also fun to stay a new project. Good luck!

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