Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles Book Cover The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

Review:

Of all the characters in Greek mythology, Achilles has always fascinated me the most. Regardless of whether he’s portrayed as a hero or a villain, he is always shown as a force to be reckoned with, awe-inspiring and larger than life. I’ve yet to meet an Achilles story I don’t like, but Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles is easily my favorite. That’s right – this book is even better than the movie Troy. Those of you who’ve seen the movie, starring a blond, glorious Brad Pitt in Grecian armor, understand just how high an accolade that is.

Miller’s novel is narrated by Patroclus, the young man Achilles loves best of anyone in the world. Patroclus’ role in the tale of Achilles varies from storyteller to storyteller; in some versions of the myth he’s cast as a cousin or a trusted friend, while in others he isn’t present at all. In Miller’s tale, Patroclus is Achilles’ lover, which is the role in which I like him best. Patroclus bears witness to Achilles’ life, growing up as his steadfast companion and remaining at his side during Achilles’ rise to greatness as a hero of the Trojan War.

Through Patroclus’s eyes, you get to see a different side of Achilles. He’s still a warrior, an almost bloodthirsty man-among-men, but at the same time there’s a boyishness to him, an innocence. This is what draws Patroclus to him, but at the same time it makes Patroclus incredibly afraid for Achilles. No matter how talented a fighter he is, he’s guileless, a dangerous quality when surrounded by men like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus.

I fell for Achilles and Patroclus as they fell for each other. They’re just so right together that witnessing their relationship feels like a privilege, like you’re a part of the specialness of their love, with all the joy and heartbreak this entails.The love that they share is so pure and tender and true that reading about it is almost like looking directly into the sun – it’s so bright that it hurts, as painful as it is beautiful. 

The blissful agony of The Song of Achilles is that it’s the epitome of dramatic irony. The story of the Trojan War is well known, so you go into the story fully aware of the fate that awaits Patroclus and his beloved. They have no idea what’s in store, but you do, and it’s a dark cloud over the happy couple. They’re so blissful, so hopeful, that it breaks your heart to know how it’s all going to end. It makes for a very intense and emotional reading experience.

The best example of this is when Achilles’ allies try to convince Achilles to kill Hector, the opposing force’s champion. Achilles brushes this off with a smile, saying lightly, “What has Hector ever done to me?” This line was enough to give me goosebumps – and bring tears to my eyes – because I knew what would eventually come to pass.

Besides the gut-wrenching irony, another thing that’s really neat about The Song of Achilles is that it draws on aspects of the Achilles legend that I hadn’t heard before. Based on some research I did after finishing the book, it seems Miller drew on older versions of the myth for the source of her material as opposed to the relatively modern versions. There are a lot of events and characters in the book that I hadn’t heard of before, and certain elements are notably absent. For instance, Miller makes no mention of Achilles’ heel being a point of weakness, which I’d thought was pivotal to the story. According to the Internet, however, Achilles was not invulnerable in any of the older legends.

I loved everything about The Song of Achilles and would definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates stories of ancient Greece, especially the Trojan War. This stunning love story, tragic at times yet ultimately hopeful, is one that will remain in my heart for life.

Review: The Goddess Test by Aimée Carter

The Goddess Test Book Cover The Goddess Test
Aimée Carter

Every girl who had taken the test has died.

Now it's Kate's turn.

It's always been just Kate and her mom - and her mother is dying. Her last wish? To move back to her childhood home. So Kate's going to start at a new school with no friends, no other family and the fear that her mother won't live past the fall.

Then she meets Henry. Dark. Tortured. And mesmerizing. He claims to be Hades, god of the Underworld - and if she accepts his bargain, he'll keep her mother alive while Kate tries to pass seven tests.

Kate is sure he's crazy - until she sees him bring a girl back from the dead. Now saving her mother seems crazily possible. If she succeeds, she'll become Henry's future bride and a goddess.

If she fails…

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

The Goddess Test is one of those books that doesn’t quite measure up to its intriguing synopsis. I love stories about Greek mythology and was looking forward to seeing Carter’s take on Hades, Persephone, and the rest of the Greek pantheon, but now that I’m done reading I feel a little dissatisfied.

My problem with this book is that the deities don’t strike me as being authentic. Henry, for example, is not at all what you would expect the god of the Underworld to be like. Although the synopsis describes him as “dark,” “tortured,” and “mesmerizing,” I suggest that more accurate adjectives would be “polite,” “careful,” and “tame.” I pictured him as an impeccably well-mannered English gentleman in a cravat and smoking jacket, not the powerful, mysterious lord of death that he was supposed to be. (Also, as a side note, what kind of name is “Henry” for a god? “Hades” sounds badass, but “Henry” sounds like the name of an accountant.)

The other gods and goddesses present in this book didn’t seem anything like the deities I learned about in my high school’s mythology unit, either. I’m used to associating Poseidon with the sea, Artemis with the hunt and virginity, Ares with war, etc., none of which comes through in this novel. The gods’ and goddesses’ defining characteristics are missing, and if I hadn’t been told that the characters in the book were supposed to represent Hermes, Zeus, etc., I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea that they were anyone other than random people.

Something else that is highly questionable about The Goddess Test is the plot itself. The premise is that Hades/Henry has been abandoned by his wife Persephone and must either find another consort to help him rule the Underworld or abandon his post and fade into oblivion. The consort can’t be just anyone, though – she must prove her worthiness by participating in seven tests and must be approved by the 13 major gods and goddesses.

This is where we get to the questionable part. All of the tests faced by Kate, Henry’s intended consort, focus on virtues such as purity, generosity, etc. Anyone who’s even the slightest bit familiar with Greek mythology knows that the gods are petty, fickle, and rash, and that kidnapping, rape, and infidelity are common features of the myths. Therefore, it seems pretty uncharacteristic for the deities in The Goddess Test to be so preoccupied with whether Kate is a virtuous person.

The tests themselves are not what I expected. I imagined Kate completing tasks and trials that would require active participation and effort on her part; I guess I was picturing something similar to the tasks Harry Potter and his fellow competitors face in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the characters must perform feats of bravery, intelligence, etc. In The Goddess Test, however, the tests are so subtle that Kate has no idea she’s participating in them – and neither does the reader. Someone asks to borrow one of Kate’s dresses, and she says yes? Awesome! Test number one is complete! It’s anticlimactic and kind of bewildering.

For all its faults, though, The Goddess Test isn’t a terrible book. I may not have been on the edge of my seat the whole way through, but I wasn’t bored either, and the way everything comes together at the end of the book goes a long way toward redeeming the novel. I appreciated getting to read another take on Hades and the Underworld, even if isn’t necessarily my favorite version of the story.