Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Warnings: war, mentions of rape, violence, homophobia, dubious consent, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, desecration of corpses
Note: This is not a YA book. Reader discretion advised.
The Song of Achilles is the story of Achilles and his role in the Trojan War from the point of view of a secondary character from the Illiad, Patroclus. At its core, this is a love story between Achilles and Patroclus and how the former’s demigod status and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans shapes their relationship. Patroclus comes to Peleus’ (Achilles’ father) palace as just another foster boy, exiled from his own kingdom and birthright. But Achilles sees something in him and makes him a companion. Perhaps he sees a reflection of the loneliness he himself has – being a demigod and destined for great things meant he was held apart from the other kids, but in Patroclus’ eyes he is not just a demigod – he is a glorious creation.
Most of the first half of the book is Patroclus’ admiration of Achilles, in all its flowery glory, as they grow up from kids, to going to train under Chiron –where they truly find themselves free – to when war comes knocking at Achilles’ door. Their love for each other develops subtly, from a familiarity that grew from proximity as well as the fact that they were the ones who understood and accepted each other. For most of this time, Achilles is the only thing that Patroclus has in his life, but Achilles is destined for bigger things, things that have been orchestrated by his mother Thetis. Thetis tries to intervene in their relationship often, not because they are both boys, but because, as a goddess she doesn’t consider any mortal good enough for her son unless they serve some purpose. She uses Deidamia to drive a wedge between them, but she underestimated their love for each other.
When the war begins, you see a different side of it from Patroclus’ view. He is rarely romanticizing the war; mostly he talks in a blunt way about the harshness of it. His relationship with Briseis is a beautiful and important development, partly because it is another person who loves him and also because his love for her sets in motion the events near the end of their lives. If you already knew how it all ends, it won’t be a surprise for you, but it will still hit hard. The parts that come after, seeing the raw pain on Achilles, and then Patroclus’ yearning to be recognized alongside him, if only so they could reunite in the afterlife – heartbreaking! At some points, I did want to throttle Achilles for being a proud fool, and placing his honor and name above his love (and once above Briseis’ safety, the jerk!). Patroclus still endures it all, never questioning his second place but doing all he can to support him. Still, he was also another sentimental fool who set in motion the prophecy, so maybe they do belong with each other!
Combined with beautiful and lyrical narration, as well as a talented narrator for the audiobook, this retelling of the Trojan War is harsh, evocative and warming at the same time.