Can a reader be surprised when they already know the ending?
I think this is the greatest challenge any writer of historical fiction must overcome.
The Greek myths are, of course, not necessarily born out of actual historical events. They are vague, foggy things that time has twisted, translated, and changed. However, most of us know the name Achilles, and if you think ‘Trojan’ it’s no jump to ‘horse’.
Not everyone has read The Iliad (and I don’t recommend it if you like your characters well-developed), but it is difficult to deny that Greek myths are ingrained in us. Novels written today are full of their echoes, and even if we retain only snatches and fragments, most of us have a piecemeal collection of Greek myths stored up inside our heads.
Writing these tales out for a modern audience seems an unenviable task, because how can a writer say anything new if they are writing a widely known, ancient story?
I confess, I’m no buff on Greek myths. I always preferred Arthur to Achilles, and the Lady in the Lake to any sea nymph, but I was recommended The Song of Achilles by a tutor. A few months on, I figured it was time to give it a go.
Having been sold a battle epic, I was rather disappointed to find a romance in my hands. Generally speaking I prefer books with love in them to books about love, but I was determined to give this one my best shot.
And I’m glad I did, because this book is beautifully written. Miller is not always the most original (‘white as bone’ and ‘black as night’ rear their ugly heads on more than one occasion), but her writing is certainly a large step up from average. This novel is lyrical, and easy to read – the sort of prose that the mind slips through with little effort.
We meet our narrator, Patroclus, as a child, and follow him through to manhood and maturity. He makes for a convincing narrator, and though the book doesn’t hang around, Miller handles Patroclus’ life with deft efficiency.
Achilles too, is well-fleshed, all things considered. Being an archetypal hero by nature, it is true that he is somewhat lacking in complexity, but I think this is an essential feature of the legend, and therefore not a point worthy of criticism.
Overall, I liked this book. I was not particularly awed by it, or moved in the depths of my heart, but it was a good read, and a refreshing take on the legend.
And now for my criticisms.
The sex was disappointingly chaste, and the writer seems to have an unfortunate sympathy for euphemism and the dreaded word ‘manhood’. Instead of the ‘sexy, dangerous’ stuff that the cover promises, we get a few sporadic shaft-rubbing scenes, and tasteful scene breaks to hide the do-do. For a book labelled ‘captivating’, I found things decidedly lukewarm.
Also, Patroclus. Come on, man. I know this book is a romance and therefore obligated to contain some degree of swooning lovesickness, but every other page we get some spiel about what a special person Achilles is, and even when they’re not together, Patroclus’ every decision seems to be defined by his lover’s good opinion.
To give credit where it’s due, Miller managed to keep things more sweet than soppy, but there was very little passion or depth to the relationship. The pair share the odd snide remark, but never one argument? Never one little misunderstanding? The absolute worst we get is ‘my mum made me get this girl pregnant! I’m so sorry.’ ‘Oh. Well if you’re sorry that’s fine. We’ll never mention it again.’
It was undercooked, if I’m honest, which is a shame, because I think Miller writes with real talent.
The violence is also very stymied. There are a few slashing scenes, but the scope and horror of battle is toned down to a few splatters of blood. Overall, the novel lacks rawness and pain.
All in all, I think this book is probably more suited to a teenage audience. It’s a fun read, but extremely clean. So clean that a lot of the time whilst reading I couldn’t help feeling that the writer could have done a lot more, but was afraid to.
That being said, I do rate it as a romance. I stick by my point about the sex being naff, but love and sex are separate things, and Miller certainly got the love across.
If you want The Iliad, but want it cute, this is the book for you.