In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller tempers the demigod Achilles by carving a portrait of a brilliant boy, then an irresistible young man, out of a legend. Hailed for crafting a tale of unyielding intensity, Miller not only offers a psychological study of the ego but hones in on Achilles’ integral bond with Patroclus.
In doing so, she exposes the blemished frailty that transforms our shortcomings into something both tender and endlessly tragic. Here are five books that echo elements of Miller’s tale of Achilles.
1. ‘Autobiography of Red’ by Anne Carson
“Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.”
Carson’s work is a novel in verse, a poetic retelling of the ancient myth of Herakles and Geryon. In this version, Geryon is still a winged, red monster, but his self-identified beastliness inspires fresh, interpretive readings every time the text is picked up.
Herakles is an arresting, selfish drifter whose brief but feverish affair with Geryon pushes the young man into a state of lucid torment. Afterwards, he’s left grappling with a world broken enough to survive their disjoining.
Geryon searches for meaning by diving into artistic forms of self-expression, from penning an autobiography to taking up photography. This coming-of-age story has a pulse of its own, and it quickens when we discover the bleak reality of twentieth century’s Latin America, where Geryon and Herakles are reunited.
Like Geryon’s wings, parts of the human psyche are bared as we delve deeper into Carson’s poetic prose. And we quickly discover that it’s magnetic enough to resist being savoured in a show of self-control, much like Geryon’s heart.
2. ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Natalie Haynes
“But when a city was sacked, everything within it was destroyed, right down to its words.”
Haynes’ novel offers a retelling of the Trojan War, delivered from the mouths of the women whipped by its fierce tides. There’s a chorus of voices narrating the story, from the Trojan women, who find themselves in the clutches of the Greeks, to the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who faced the enraged Achilles in battle.
The female perspective provides novelty and notes of humour to one of the most inflaming stories from the ancient world. Though the accounts may feel slightly disconnected at times, they find a way to merge into a cohesive narrative; one that offers a look at the tremendous scope of the Trojan War.
3. ‘Peter Darling’ by Austin Chant
“That’s the trick of growing up. Nothing stays the same.” Hook sounded oddly sympathetic. “You see the faults in everything. Including yourself.”
Chant’s novel takes a keener look at the beloved tale of Peter Pan. In this rendition, he’s a twenty-year-old man who has returned to Neverland to settle back into his old role as a leader and find an adventure worth pursuing. At the core of his return is a sense of rising panic, a gasping need to outrun the loneliness he had to endure back home.
It comes back in snaps and flashes, a splintered story of his family’s erasure of his identity. Their belief in Pan being a girl was upheld with brutal words, with one of the harshest being the name Wendy. But Neverland isn’t quite the same, and its shifting reality demands that Pan confront not only his childish inclinations but the strain feeding his obsession with Captain Hook.
It’s an adventurous, romantic and surprisingly heartbreaking story of identity, self-worth and second chances. The depth of the story comes from Chant’s grasp of tension in all its perplexity, from emotional twinges to bodily hunger. And, most importantly, the way being caged in the wrong body keeps the soul ravenous.
4. ‘Gates of Fire’ by Steven Pressfield
“Because a warrior carries helmet and breastplate for his own protection, but his shield for the safety of the whole line.”
Pressfield’s novel tells the heart-stopping tale of the three hundred Spartan soldiers who stood in the rocky mountain pass at Thermopylae, where they formed a human barrier against the thunderous Persian army. The soldiers eventually had to resort to using flesh and muscle as their only weapons, springing at the chance to go down in an outburst of extraordinary tenacity.
As a former Marine, Pressfield slides beneath the tough shell of a soldier, coming away with a compelling picture of his emotional and psychological makeup. With brotherly love for his fellow soldiers, he embraces self-sacrifice as the relief he can offer to those he has sworn to protect.
It’s that compulsion to serve others, the sense of duty that stitches him to the sides of his brothers and leaves him bleeding from shared wounds, that conducts an electrical current down every page.
5. ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles
“I read and I read; and I was like a medieval king, I had fallen in love with the picture long before I saw the reality.”
Fowles’ novel is a masterpiece sewed from countless fabrics. It contains elements of eroticism, tongue-swelling suspense, a mystifying charade, the intellectual undressing of a soul, and a shivering take on a ghost story padded with layers of allegory.
Its delicious core begins to unfold when Nicholas Urfe, an Englishman who arrives on the Greek island of Phraxos to fill a teaching position, befriends a local millionaire.
Reality and fantasy fuse, dimming the edges between a simple game and a fight for sanity’s slipping embrace. During his frenzied struggle with chaos, Nicholas is forced to redefine his freedom, culture’s influence on his values, and the ever-elusive nature of morality.
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