So Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is the story of Achilles, as told by Patroclus. There are a lot of novels that try to retell Homer (or other such epics), and it’s usually pretty predictable how they go: They take as their viewpoint character one of the more minor characters on the edge of the thing (check), they add in psychological complexity that gives the mythic characters human depth (check), they add in a bunch of sex (check; Patroclus’ relationship with Achilles is not subtext here), and they make it gritty and realistically historical.
It’s that last one where Miller breaks from the mold, because the story she’s telling is still openly and unabashedly a fantasy. When Chiron appears to train Achilles and Patroclus, he’s not just a guy, he’s an actual centaur. When Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, appears, she’s not just a lady who lives down by the water, she’s a genuine goddess. The plague that strikes the armies outside of Troy is unambiguously brought about by Apollo. The focus of the novel isn’t the gods, it’s the human characters, but the gods are unquestionably real and acting directly.
And so along with setting the book in a genuinely mythical world, Miller writes in a tone that isn’t crisp realism, it’s much more lyrical and poetic. Achilles appears as a golden demigod of a man; the army of the Greeks isn’t one of shit and blood, it’s courage and bronze; everything is grand and epic. And, too, this isn’t really a story about war in the modern sense, it’s about glory and legacy, about love, and about what it means to be aristos Achaion. Recommended.