The bodice-ripper gets a gay makeover in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and, for the most part, the transformation works.
The bulk of the novel coasts on the slow-to-consummate attraction between Patroclus, an exiled weakling of a prince, and Achilles, the great fighter who is destined to become a hero in the Trojan War. They become sworn companions – nudge nudge, wink wink – and Miller dedicates a great part of her novel to descriptions of Achilles’ flawless beauty, Patroclus’ forbidden hunger for the beguiling half-mortal legend-in-waiting and passages about limbs gliding over limbs, taut chests, and armor falling to the floor of tents (passages that are generally coy and just this side of tasteful). Here, Miller’s writing feels a bit mechanical. At parts, it seems like she’s aware the book has progressed for five or ten pages without a steamy passage and so feels obligated to throw one in.
But the book gets better when Patroclus and Achilles leave their adolescence behind. It’s a development that coincides with their recruitment into the Greek army, a fateful prophecy that Achilles won’t return home from the Trojan War and the growing pressure they feel from general consensus that their relationship could be overlooked when they were boys, but should now be cast aside. To be sure, most of the drama and peril in this part at this stage come straight from Homer’s The Iliad, but Miller deserves some credit for making the familiar tale her own.
She shows adeptness in what she borrows from The Iliad and what she does not and seamless alloys those elements into her story in a way that does not feel like she’s grafting obligatory components of the legend into her own work. The characters of Thetis, Achilles’ sea nymph mother, and of Briseis, a captured princess, particularly feel fresh and reinvented and are to thank for the novel’s eleventh hour knife-twist of poignancy. The Song of Achilles comes to a surprisingly meaningful ending and that’s a credit to Miller, considering that the reader probably knew how things would wind up from the beginning.