Madeline Miller is a first-time author but you’d never know it. Gorgeous and self-assured, her writing brings a scholarly touch to evocative and dramatic prose. That was really the best part about this story for me – the writing. I just marveled at the rhythm, beauty and surprise in her sentences. Even though I’m not a war story enthusiast and am not particularly comfortable reading about homosexual relationships, I had to keep going with this book to see what Miller was going to do with it. I felt privileged to be in the hands of such a writer and didn’t want to lose my audience with her just because I wasn’t so engaged in the story.
The story, by the way, is a spin-off of the Iliad. Did you read it in college? I didn’t. Though I was an English Major, I shied away from Greek Mythology. Still I’d heard of the Battle of Troy, the Trojan Horse and the expression “Achilles heel.” I figured Miller would put it all together for me.
As much as it’s about the Greek-Trojan war, this book is about the romance – implied in the Iliad but made explicit here – between Achilles, famed Greek warrior, and Patrocles, an exiled prince. The story is told from Patrocles’ point of view – an interesting choice considering he’s such a minor character in the Iliad. But by doing so, Miller really gives voice to the difficulties – existing even today – of being in a homosexual relationship. Yes it was Ancient Greece and yes many leading warriors and thinkers were gay – but the practice was only accepted in boyhood. When you reached marriagable age you were supposed to take a wife and sire an heir. To be the leading Greek warior and not conform to this expectation was taboo.
Achilles and Patrocles hold fast to each other and their loyalty and devotion is touching. As the book goes on, even the most reluctant reader must give their relationship credibility. Initially resistant to the attraction, the two become the best of friends before the romance begins to flourish. And once it does, they are sworn to one another: Achilles does his best to protect Patrocles in battle (and against his fiercely disapproving mother) and Patrocles takes a risk for Achilles that changes the entire course of the war and endangers his life.
I don’t know that I would’ve been drawn to the subject matter had I not heard so many good things about this book. But that being said, I could not put this book down for the last 70 pages – the scenes were that dramatic and intense. So, in spite of yourself you will get drawn into this story – but read it for the writing if nothing else, because Miller is truly a talent.
Also, if you are at all following the 2013 Tournament of Books , this book is one of the contenders. I don’t plan to read all the books listed, but I do plan to read a few more before the tournament begins in March. Book Riot will be doing a pre-tournament analysis of each of the books and covering it closely. So if you’re interested in hashing it out for the best book of 2012, take a look at the link and get reading!