Subject: A review of *The Song of Achilles*
Posted on: 2021-01-06 03:34:25 UTC
(Content warning: we'll be discussing greek mythology, there might be some sexual assault in here.)
I didn't want to do this. I wanted to write about how a promising new author's first book, a re-imagining of the life of Achilles told from the perspective of Patroclus, crafted a compelling narrative of romance and tragedy filled with flawed yet human characters, that breathed new life into the classic story of the Iliad. I wanted to tell you that The Song of Achilles is a beautiful book that has deserved every bit of praise it's received.
Unfortunately, I can't do that. The Song of Achilles, while it has some promising elements, is not a good book. And now I get the dubious honor of actually talking about why an award-winning novel that has been extremely positively received doesn't live up to my expectations.
The Song of Achilles is, of course, primarily based on the Iliad. Which I haven't read in full, but I know enough. The Achilles depicted in the Iliad may be a god of war on the battlefield, but he's painfully human: He's proud, he's arrogant, and above all else, he wants to leave a legacy. It's not enough for him to fight: he needs people to remember his name, and the glory he's attained in battle. And he's willing to do terrible things, and to let people he would otherwise fight with die, to achieve that end. The only person he wouldn't let die for it... is Patroclus. And Patroclus is a less defined figure. He's Achilles'... friend. Y'know. The kind of friend who you literally love more than life itself. That kind of friend. There's not a ton of information about him. We know he killed another boy over a dice game in anger, and this lead him to be brought to the house of Achilles' father. We know that he's older than Achilles, and sometimes acted as counsel, despite technically being below Achilles in rank. He seems to be more sensitive to the emotions of others than Achilles. He has some skill in medicine, maybe (this is a little unclear), and while he is not the warrior Achilles is (nobody is, that's the point) he's at least competent. I gathered this from a semester course on Greek Mythology a year ago, a brief skimming of the Iliad (the Pope translation), and looking at Wikipedia (and then checking all the references and drawing my own conclusions. I did my due dilligence on this one).
Let me describe Patroclus's characterization in The Song of Achilles. Firstly, he really likes Achilles. Secondly, he has no other interests or motivations. Thirdly, he's selectively incredibly unintelligent, not realizing that going to war might involve having to fight, or that following Achilles around might also involve going to war at some point. Y'know. When he's destined to be the greatest warrior of the Greeks. At other times, he's intelligent and cunning. Usually when Achilles isn't around. He hates fighting to the point that he refuses to learn to fight more effectively ever, and only fights kind of good at the very end Because Magic Or Divine Intervention Or Whatever (and because Patroclus has to kill Sarpedon because that's a thing Homer wrote down). He is, effectively, a non-character: A sweet cinnamon roll for Achilles to protecc until the end, where how he was the bravest and best of us all or whatever. And also still a sweet cinnamon roll. If Achilles didn't exist, I literally can't tell you anything about what Patroclus would be doing, because his character revolves so utterly around the other man. He doesn't learn anything for himself, except a bit of medicine from Chiron. And it doesn't escape my notice that the one skill Patroclus is allowed to learn for himself is a skill that we might consider feminine in the modern day.
Speaking of which, allow me to dedicate a moment to Achilles' characterization. He's perfect. He's objectively perfect and beautiful in every possible way. He fights perfectly, he's the best at everything, he's such a danged nice guy and he's altruistic and charming and lets Patroclus hang out with him they're kids out of pity. And his feet are perfect and he rubs them with oil. Did I mention his feet yet? Because this book mentions his feet and the oil he rubs on them and how perfect his feet are. A lot. Like, a weird amount. I'm not going to judge it for that, there are way too many other things I want to judge it for. But I felt the need to mention it. Oh, and at the end the he turns wrathful and prideful and gets super weirdly happy about how many of the greeks are dying for the sake of his pride out of nowhere? Whereas before he's been frequently portrayed as kind and generous and there wasn't a lot of foreshadowing of this sort of thing? Did I mention that this book is bad at consistent characterization?
So... yeah. Characterization is inconsistent and shallow. That's... not good. But I also have issues with the plotting. The book makes out Achilles; immortal mother as a sort of villain, who resents Patroclus for being mortal and not good enough for her son. I don't know what the basis in mythology here, but from the perspective of a reader who's more interested in hearing a good story, it sounds like an excuse to cram a hackneyed plot element about a disapproving mother into a romance story that really didn't need it. I thought that a war and the characters themselves and their flaws combined to provide more than enough tension, but I guess not, so we're doing this now. And then there's a big moment at the end where Achilles's mother and Patroclus (who's dead by this point) talk, and Patroclus makes her see how great her son is and they come to an understanding and while the last few chapters (narrated post-mortem by Patroclus' shade) are by far the best in the book and managed to get some actual intended emotions out of me, I just threw up in my mouth a little describing that.
For the most part, the plot actually does follow the plot of the Iliad, except that it goes to great lengths to change things to justify or avert any sins our heroes might have committed. Achilles only slept with a girl because his mom made him. They only took slave girls after battle to save them from the other kings because they're gay and pure and unlike those other kings won't sexually assault the girls. They had a super good relationship with that slave girl that Achilles had to give to Menelaus (which is why Achilles started sulking to begin with. If you're a greek at the time it probably makes sense. Nowadays it seems childish...), and Achilles feels super bad about those farmers he killed during the raiding early in the war. This weird desire to absolve our protagonists, and only our protagonists, of any sort of crimes or unsavory behaviour leads to... weird places. Like for example that princess Achilles slept with (who in actual mythology he may have raped, it's a little unclear---this whole section where's he disguised as a princess only appears in some versions of tales...) is totally willing, and Achilles only did it because his mom made him so he's not cheating on Patroclus because he wants to... but even as the book absolves Achilles of all potential sins in the modern eye there, it's totally willing to write a scene where that same princess, now pregnant with Achilles' child, coerces him into having sex with her. It feels weird writing our characters as such pure paragons of virtue in a setting where nobody else is for no real justifiable reason. Not that I'm saying that the book would have been improved by having Achilles and Patroclus commit horrible atrocities and sex crimes. I don't think it would have. But the level of utter denial that they can do anything on a personal level that might be morally wrong makes me uncomfortable too, especially given this is a time period where so many of these things would have been normalized and acceptable, which the book admits, in the actions of the other kings, but is unwilling to actually contend with.
This weird middle-ground also appears in the way that the book handles its mythological elements. Gods flat-out exist, Achilles and Patroclus are taught by Chiron, who is a literal Centaur, but Achilles wasn't dipped in the Styx and dies from an arrow to the chest, because apparently that part was... too unrealistic? Or originated in a later version of the myth and thus is less "pure"? I'm a little confused about the author's motives (she did comment on them, I'm just confused). But it seems a weird place to draw the line?
On the whole, the prose is at least serviceable. Sometimes. The author's inexperience shows at times, particularly in a single scene that is supposed to more sexual (they're not explicit, it's the classic "showing but not actually" kind of scene), which I... get the sense she wasn't comfortable writing. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but awkward phrases like "the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine", or "He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine" make it impossible for me to take the moment seriously. Even the best writers can struggle with this, but it's still a notable issue with a huge moment in the book that absolutely could have been written in a better way.
At the end of the book, there was an interview with the author, and two parts of an answer to one question leapt out at me. The first is that the author says that she was in part "propelled by a desire to set the record straight" with regards to Achilles and Patroclus' relationship, as it had often been ignored or explicitly denied by historians over the years (suffice to say, there's another universe where /r/sapphoandherfriend is named /r/achillesandhisfriend instead...). That's a natural reason to want to write a book like this, but in the context of the material I had just read, it said something else to me: that the author cared more about these characters being gay than about the characters themselves. And if there is a path to failure in writing a romance, surely that's it. Another thing the author said, about how it was "dampening" to hear her ex call the fan fiction (and... well, The Song of Achilles is fan fiction. It's fan fiction of mythology, but the shapes and forms are recognizable. Unlike many things I've said here, I don't mean that as an insult), made me wonder if she had ever written fan fiction before writing this book. I'm a bit doubtful, and I think it would have improved this book if she had: Fan fiction authors have to develop the skill of learning to a character whose personality is defined by another work, and keep that personality consistent with what's been written by other people, so that when people who have read that work read the fic, they find the characters recognizable. That talent is a big part of what this book lacks.
I really don't mean to insult the author or to imply that the book is an unmitigated garbage fire. There are a lot of things in here that are competently done. But I feel like it fails on what it sets out to do, and the fundamental premise was a promising idea that I really wanted to see done: that's why I bought the book, and that's what makes me feel like I was let down. I'm a touch bitter, if I'm being honest. This book made me look up and say "gosh, a lot of these books about gay romance are written by straight women," and wonder if that's why Patroclus felt a bit like he'd been turned into a Bland Romance Heroine. This is not to say to say female authors shouldn't write these subjects: I just read Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson, which handled a similar story much better. But I think there are unique failure modes that only occur when you're very different from the characters you're writing and don't take the proper steps to figure out how to write them well. /r/menwritingwomen is testament to how much worse it can get, and just how badly written female characters can be. And whether the characters be male or female, I'm particularly unkind to bad romance stories. It's the same reason I hate ABO.
The author's second book, Circe, also received a lot of critical acclaim, and I really hope that it's a good book. I want it to be. I want to be able to say that this book was a shaky first step in a promising career writing really excellent excellent books based in mythology. But after reading this... I can't bring myself to take a look. Once bitten, twice shy.