I don’t think I have ever read a book that was quite this hyped to me. I am actually looking forward to going back through the past reviews of this book here to see what cannonballers think of this book, because you guys always surprise me in a good way when I’m feeling conflicted – I never feel alone.
Anyway, this book is the current darling of booktube, bookstagram and booktok even though it’s already 10 years old by now, which I think is quite remarkable. I feel like social media tends to focus of new releases, so to see a book endure felt like a good omen to me. Plus, this fit right into the Mythic square on book bingo, and the cover was so pretty in the store that I just had to get it.
A disclaimer: although I have recently read Mythos by Stephen Fry, my knowledge of Greek mythology is weak at best. I have a mostly superficial knowledge of the main myths from primary school books and I am fairly certain we discussed the broad strokes of the Odyssey in high school 20 years ago, but I have most definitely never read the Illiad. All I knew of Achilles before embarking into this book was the pop culture reference translated into a distant memory of him being the invincible warrior who died because someone kicked his heel? Yes, that definitely sounds about right… ¬¬
I expected to be swept up by this book, and find myself unable to put it down. Conversely, I had to force myself to pick it up again and again over the almost two months it took me to finish (I even tried it on audio, which just didn’t work for me for whatever reason). But I decided I was going to force myself to finish it this weekend, even if I had to skim through the last 150 pages.
I don’t know what happened, and I need to talk it through, so I apologize but this will be full of spoilers.
Let me tell you a little bit about this story: funnily enough, The Song Of Achilles tells the story of Patroclus – a very young prince who is not interested in fighting, who accidently kills a boy who is trying to bully him and is exiled by his father to Phthia. There, he is expected to train and join the army, but instead finds himself infatuated with Achilles, the demi-God who is Peleus’ son, a boy so beautiful and perfect — fated to be the best warrior of Greece, but who is gentle and smart, and plays the lyre like an angel.
Achilles takes a liking to young Patroclus and claims him for his companion, and when he is sent to learn from Chiron the centaur, Patroclus runs and follows him. We watch the 2 of them grow up and fall in love and I am sure it’s all sweet and beautiful, I just couldn’t find it in myself to care.
When Helen is kidnapped and taken to Troy and all Greek heroes called to action to rescue her and Thetis (Achilles’ Goddess mother) hides her son in a foreign land and marries him off to a princess in secret, Patroclus searches until he finds him which I guess is again sweet, but this stop really lost me as a reader.
Apparently, the princess is pregnant with Achilles’ child, but there is this thing where she convinces Patroclus to sleep with her and the only reason I could see for that is that she wasn’t really pregnant and needed to be so that she could have a reason to claim the scheme with Thetis was true? But if that is the case, who is the father? I would understand the existence of this passage if it was Patroclus, because it’d make the ending even more bittersweet. But the child is then raised by Thetis under water, which I don’t think it’d have been possible if he’d been human, so I don’t understand why this was necessary. Maybe I missed the point altogether.
Regardless, Odysseus finds Achilles and Patroclus and carries them off to war. Achilles is aware of a prophecy that says he will not die while Hector (Troy’s best warrior) lives, so he makes sure not to kill him and the war drags on for 10 years. Achilles fights and is a bit of an arse about it. Patroclus becomes a medic and is compassionate of the terrible fate of women in misogynistic Greece and tries to save as many as he can through Achilles’ choice in “spoils of war”. But they’re still living a fairly happy life together, I guess.
The thing is, so much of this is about “pride” and “war” and I just can’t relate. I think wars are stupid and I couldn’t bring myself to care while soldiers revolted, and Gods got angered, and Achilles became a stubborn knobhead so worried about his own glory that he’d rather see everyone dead than to stop a massacre. So when Patroclus disguised himself as Achilles to try and lead the Phthian army to help and actually fought quite well before being killed by Hector, I still didn’t care too much.
When Achilles realized Patroclus was dead and went all out on a revenge-filled murderous rage and killed Hector, bringing on his own demise, all I thought was: you brought this all on yourself.
You know what killed me? This book is entirely told by Patroclus, and once he died his spirit continues to narrate the story, as he is bound to walk the earth by where he died until his body is burnt and his ashes are set to the Earth in his name. And Achilles asks to have their ashes mingled and buried together because regardless of how much of an dick he was, he did love Patroclus with all his heart.
But this is where we re-enter Pyrrhus into the story. This is Achilles’ (or Patroclus’) son, who comes into the war, after being raised by Thetis. He is the worst character is this book who comes in the last minute just to make everything worse. He is all the arrogance of a soul-less God mingled with the entitlement of a rich little adolescent boy. And he basically says that it’s too bad if his father’s ashes are mingled with this nobody-slave’s, but only Achilles’ name shall be written in the monument they’re erecting.
And this is heartbreaking. I’m tearing up again just writing this down. I think it’s Patroclus’ despair at this absolute erasure that really got to me. It destroyed me. Because Achilles is off to the underworld, and Patroclus, who really was the best of the Greeks, is doomed to wander Anatolia alone after all the Greeks have gone back home.
It is only after a long long time, long after Pyrrhus is long dead from being a douche, that Patroclus convinces Thetis, who always hated him, to write his name next to Achilles’, so he can move on to the underworld.
So am I left with a conundrum when trying to rate this book. Because this was really hard work, and I didn’t enjoy reading it for the most part. But I can’t stop thinking about those last 20-30 pages and it’s been quite a while since a book has gotten such a visceral reaction out of me. So while I wanted to give it 3 stars, I think I might have to raise it up.
Thank you for putting up with me and my rants 🙂