This week I’m recommending a recent book – `The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller – that Fantasy lovers may have missed. The publishers, Bloomsbury, were careful to avoid the word Fantasy when promoting this book. Their strategy seems to have worked. `The Song of Achilles’ was read and praised by literary types who usually turn their noses up at Fantasy and it won the 2012 Orange Prize (for best novel by a female author).  Miller draws on Homer’s `Iliad’ and other Classical sources to tell the story of the legendary hero Achilles from the viewpoint of his beloved friend, Patroclus. Why, and to whom, Patroclus is describing the history of his relationship with Achilles is only revealed right at the end of the book.

Miller, who teaches Classics, is obviously immensely knowledgeable but she isn’t afraid to diverge from her source material and reinterpret key relationships. `The Song of Achilles’ isn’t just a retelling of the `tale of Troy’, it’s a passionate re-imagining by someone immersed in the world of Greek myth. If you are familiar with the original stories, there is much that is new and interesting in this book.  If you know next to nothing about the gods and heroes of Ancient Greece, don’t be put off. `The Song of Achilles’ would be a good place to start because Miller reduces the cast list of `The Iliad’ to manageable proportions and the narrator explains everything that you need to know. The stated theme of `The Iliad’ is `the wrath of Achilles’  after he is insulted by  the leader of his own side. Miller’s book gives a more complete picture of the making – and warping – of a hero. This is a hard novel to describe without giving away quite a lot of the plot, so if you want everything to come as a surprise, stop reading now.

For those still with me – Patroclus begins his narrative by describing his unhappy childhood. As a boy, he is taken to Sparta to be one of the many suitors of the divinely  beautiful Princess Helen. To avoid conflict, clever Odysseus suggests that all the suitors should swear to accept  Helen’s choice of husband and fight anyone who tries to take her from him. Everyone swears and Helen chooses Menelaus, brother of the High King Agamemnon, as her husband. When Patroclus accidentally kills a boy who is bullying him, he is exiled to the court of King Peleus, whose dazzling son, Prince Achilles, chooses Patroclus as his companion. The boys become best friends and eventually lovers but Achilles’ mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, doesn’t think that Patroclus is worthy of her godlike son.  Achilles and Patroclus spend idyllic years studying peaceful arts with the centaur Chiron. Then Helen is carried off to the city of Troy by Prince Paris and Menelaus summons all the kings and princes who swore the oath to sail with him to capture Troy and recover his wife. Achilles is destined by the gods to be the greatest warrior the world has ever known, so the Greeks want Achilles and his Myrmidons to be part of their army. Thetis tries to hide her son by disguising him as a woman, but soon Achilles is forced to choose between a long and ignoble life or a short life and immortal fame.

`The Iliad’ famously begins slap in the middle of the Trojan War. `The Song of Achilles’ does not.  The incomparable warrior Achilles doesn’t get to make his first kill until page 202. So if you are mainly interested in battles, this probably isn’t the version for you. The slow build-up to the war requires some patience and the boys’ time with Chiron is a little dull. Not a word I often use about centaurs. However, this detailed portrait of the shy and innocent young Achilles does make his later development into a proud and vengeful killer seem much more painful. I think Miller writes convincingly about the wonder and intensity of first love and the sex scenes are delicately handled.  Patroclus’ obsession with Achilles is almost creepy to begin with but once the lovers get to Troy, he becomes the voice of compassion and reason. Some parts of this novel which seem particularly modern, such as the depiction of the High King Agamemnon as a cowardly bully,  are in fact straight out of Homer. As in `The Iliad’, Achilles and Agamemon quarrel over a slave girl called Briseis, but the  real cause is masculine pride. The cruel treatment of  nearly all the women in this story is authentic for the period and hard to read about.  At first, Patroclus and Achilles are little better than the rest of the men in their contemptuous attitudes toward women but gentle Patroclus learns to respect and care for Briseis, whom Miller makes into a strong and attractive character. This gives a new slant to the traditional plot.

Another impressive aspect of `The Song of Achilles’ is the matter of fact way that the characters accept the existence of gods and demi-gods who can interfere in their lives. This divine world is mainly represented in the novel by two lesser powers, the wise and benevolent centaur, Chiron,  and Achilles’ terrifying but devoted mother, Thetis. Forced to marry a mortal she hates, Thetis is no dainty nymph. Patroclus describes her as having a mouth `like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice’ and a voice like `the grinding of rocks in the surf’. For me, this tragic mother-figure is the most memorable character in the book.  The major deities are experienced through  the terrible things they do,  like inflicting a plague or refusing to let the wind blow until a young girl is sacrificed. They have great power over humans but no moral superiority.  In this situation, small acts of human decency, such as Patroclus persuading Achilles to claim and free a few female captives, have great impact. `The Song of Achilles’ is a sad story but one that leaves you with hope . Until next week.