Madeline Miller tells a story replete with Greek gods, kings, warriors, battles, and death. And yet what it’s really about is the love between Achilles and Patroclus. Both young men are high born princes. Achilles is also half god, with a human father and goddess mother.
Rather than focus on the likely hero, Miller chooses to make our narrator the man by his side, Patroclus. He’s no warrior. Instead, he’s truly a gentle, caring soul caught in the midst of war and turmoil. Patroclus also blows his reputation so early on that he is exiled and virtually disregarded. On the other hand, Achilles must live up to the prophecy that he’ll be Greece’s greatest warrior.
Despite all their differences, this unlikely friendship blooms into something much deeper. After a diverse education at the side of Chiron the centaur, the boys are also solidly a couple. They’ve become young men, and in ancient times this was true adulthood.
Miller’s book is fundamentally about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. It’s also about their childhoods. But most of all, it’s about how they navigate the Greek’s years-long siege of Troy.
When the Greek kings band together to rescue the beautiful Helen from Troy, it only natural that they’d want Achilles to join them. What follows is by turns humorous, violent, and tragic. Miller integrates the presence of both gods, like Apollo, and famous Greek warriors, like Agamemnon and Melenaus. The long siege among testosterone-heavy warriors has famously been told many times, and this is a new angle on the story.
This is the most absorbing myth retelling I think I’ve ever read. Miller manages to make ancient times feel current, urgent, and relevant. She has a crisp but lyrical writing style that lent itself to an audiobook listen. By the end, I was so anxious to know the conclusion that I switched to ebook. I’m a much faster reader than listener.
Telling the tale from Patroclus’ point of view is genius. He’s eminently more likable than Achilles, and more poetic in his storytelling. Miller discusses love, pride, and valor in the context of events and it never becomes preachy. These men must wrestle with those concepts as much as they wrestle with the Trojans or their Greek rivals.
If you’re looking for a myth retelling with depth, heart, and energy, I recommend this book heartily.