I just finished up some work travel, during which I seemed to have terrible reading luck and suffered through one bad book choice after another–overly-dense historical non-fiction, some ridiculous self-help that made me roll my eyes, etc. Luckily, I finally hit a good one and The Song of Achilles entertained me through the last little stretch of waiting out summer thunderstorms in various airports.
Written by Madeleine Miller, it tells the story of Achilles, the great Greek warrior who led Greek troops in the Trojan War and was (spoilers!) ultimately killed by one of the princes of Troy. Now, there are certainly plenty of stories out there about the Trojan War, including The Iliad, if you’re in the mood for some epic poetry. The twist in this one is that the narrator is Patroclus, a young Greek prince who is exiled from his home and raised with Achilles. Patroclus is right there alongside Achilles as he is taught by a centaur and fights the Trojans and moves through all the other relevant bits of Greek mythology. And in Miller’s version of the story they become lovers and life partners.
After I finished the book I reviewed some of the stories of Achilles on-line, and it’s clear that Miller did a tremendous amount of research. The book includes references to some very minor points of mythology and even touches on how stories change over time (that whole Achilles heel thing only came up in later stories, so it doesn’t come into play here). If you’ve read any of Marian Zimmer Bradley’s modern retellings of story of King Arthur or Troy, this book won’t seem all that revolutionary–Miller’s not striking any new ground here by putting a new spin on a classic story. And it looks like that there has long been scholarly debate about the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, so even that aspect of the book is based in history. However, the writing is refreshingly crisp and straightforward and the action moved quickly. Even knowing the basic structure of the story, I was whipping through the book as fast as I could, desperate to find out what would happen next. It was a perfect book to keep my attention while smushed in an airplane seat.
And just this week this book won the 2012 Orange Prize, the British award that “celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world,” so apparently this book is even more well-regarded than I thought. (Plus, the chair of the judges this year for the Orange Prize was Joanna Trollope, who I also love–go read The Rector’s Wife!)