Let me start this review by stating I love what Madeline Miller does. There’s a relatively new push in the entertainment industry to take classic stories of good versus evil, hero versus villain, and add layers of complexity where there once was a simple formula of black and white. Not to say this is a completely new phenomenon, but we’re seeing it pop up on a much larger scale in recent years. We’ve seen this in the Disney universe with movies like Maleficent and Cruella. We’ve seen it in television reboots like Cobra Kai where we find out Johnny is not just a bully and a meathead but a complicated human with a sad past who just might be deserving of redemption. And pretty goddamn sexy, to boot. Daniel, on the other hand, does have the capability of being an arrogant douche who could use a wake-up call. To be fair, Daniel was occasionally a dumb little twerp in the original Karate Kid movies despite being presented as “the good guy.” I’m not complaining about that. Every teenager is a dumb little twerp at some point. It’s amazing any of us survive to adulthood. Let me tell you, I and millions of other fans are completely here for this kind of work that turns the tables on the formulaic good versus evil trope we are all used to! And now we get to love and appreciate both Daniel and Johnny in equal measure and see that the true power of their story is taken when both are given equal narrative attention. Yay for complexity. What just happened?
For literature fans, we’re all back here sort of rolling our eyes at the lateness of television and movies in finally figuring out this should be not just a periodic thing but a common thing. Complexity has always been the domain of a good novelist. Writers like Miller are taking old tales of folklore and myth and adding layers to characters we all actually know quite well. In the case of her 2018 novel, Circe, which I quite adore, she was able to take even more poetic license than she was for Song of Achilles. In the Greek myths, Circe was nothing more than a figure in passing. Miller was able to take what we know of her story and give her a voice, a voice that proves to be quite powerful and captivating.
With Achilles, anyone who isn’t familiar with his name has been living under a very large rock. He’s given his own hero tale within the Greek myths, a tale which has spawned numerous appearances for him in novel, television and film. Most notably, Brad Pitt portrayed the great hero in the 2004 film, Troy. What I will say for this film is they also did a great job at adding some complexity to the characters we all know so well. Madeline Miller kicked this up a notch and added a unique blend of traits that made us question what it truly is to be a hero and challenged the traditional ideas of masculinity and heroism. This is a refreshing change to a genre that typically is rife with all the worst forms of toxic masculinity.
The challenge Miller has here is people already know the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan war. Many readers, in fact, know how the story is going to end. So how do you keep readers invested in a story that’s already spoiled due to the fact it’s a retelling? Poetic license really helps here. I noted some very important changes, most notably the lack of Achilles’ immortality save for that one vulnerable place. I mean, it is a little bit silly if you think about it. No man or woman has only one vulnerability, and their vulnerability is rarely ever simply physical. Miller presents Achilles as being a man plagued by multiple vulnerabilities. Quite simply, he can be a real dick. He may be well intentioned, but he is prideful, and pride can bring about disastrous consequences. Just go to an encyclopedia and open it to “war” and you’ll see all kinds of reasons pride has brought chaos, death and destruction. Presenting readers with such a big change as this plants a seed of doubt into whether or not Miller will take the story in the same direction ultimately as the original myth. And no, I’m not going to tell you whether she does or not. You will have to read for yourself.
Overall, this is a fiercely original take on something that could very well have been tired and overused. As usual, the novel is full of Miller’s expert and lyrical but unpretentious prose, making for a quick and enjoyable read. In this case, I listened to the audio as beautifully narrated by Frazer Douglas. Seriously, that man has a sexy voice to go with some pretty erotic narration. Blanche Devereaux approved, indeed.
In short, whether or not you are a fan of the classic myth of Achilles, this is a worthwhile and engaging read. Miller has created something unique out of something often overdone without completely ruining the original. 4 stars.
Published March 6, 2012 by HarperAudio. ISBN0062115588. Runtime 11 hrs, 15 mins. Narrated by Frazer Douglas.