It takes a truly gifted writer to make a song this old feel this beautifully new.
That The Song of Achilles offers a different take on the epic story of Achilles and the Trojan War is not, in itself, anything particularly out of the ordinary. People have been putting their own spins on The Iliad from the instant Homer finished reciting it. What's startling about this sharply written, cleverly re-imagined, enormously promising debut novel from Madeline Miller is how fresh and moving her take on the tale is — how she has managed to bring Achilles and his companion Patroclus to life in our time without removing them from their own.
While this remarkable achievement makes Miller the latest heir to the legacy of the greatest of all historical novelists, Mary Renault, she has approached her epic tale from a completely different direction. Where Renault sought plausible explanations for such Greek myths as the Minotaur, Miller takes them at face value: The gods exist in her Song, and Achilles is the son of one of them, the sea goddess Thetis — Miller's most startling creation. Rather than explain away the gods, she uses spare language to convey the awe and, mostly, terror that humans might have felt in their presence.
Yet what's most impressive, perhaps, is her realistic treatment of those humans. She uses Achilles' demi-god "otherness" to explain his flaws and behavior — and in the process makes him far more sympathetic than he has ever been.
That empathetic effect is essential, because at heart Miller is writing a love story, wrapping adventure and tragedy around the discreetly portrayed affair between Achilles and story narrator Patroclus. To do so while keeping characters in period, she adroitly walks a fine line: They are not gay in our sense, but they're more than "companions" as the ancients might have understood the term.
As with any story where you know the ending, what matters is the journey — this one is fast, true and incredibly rewarding. A new song is born, and with it, an author we'll want to hear sing again, and soon.