The Song of Achilles chronicles the Trojan War from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion from The Iliad—and is primarily a love story, chronicling Patroclus’ and Achilles’ relationship from boyhood. We see their friendship grow into devotion as they are mentored by the fabled centaur Chiron. As tragedy befalls them when they are swept away to fight for the Greek king Agamemnon, Madeline Miller guides us through this deeply moving story of love and loss. Should you find yourself hungry for another poignant tale from the classical world, here are five books a bit like The Song of Achilles that we think should sate your desire.
The Silence of the Girls is a 2018 book from the English novelist Pat Barker. Much like Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Barker’s book recounts The Iliad chiefly from another perspective—that of Briseis. Sentenced to be the bed-slave of Achilles, the man who slaughtered her entire family, Briseis is stolen from Achilles by the sadistic Agamemnon. The chain of events that follows ultimately results in Achilles’ hostile exit from the Greek war effort, as chronicled in The Iliad. But although one would expect Briseis to be a central character within the epic, she seldom says more than a few words. Thus, in this modern retelling Barker gives us a new perspective on the Trojan War from a woman who has been consistently written off as a footnote within a man’s epic.
Published in 1956, Renault’s first novel, set in Ancient Greece, was the second of her works to feature male homosexuality as a major theme and became a bestseller among the gay community. Set during the Peloponnesian War, Alexias, a young Athenian from a good family, finds himself in a new adult world where his power and status are undermined by the forces of war. He soon finds himself drawn to the controversial teachings of Socrates. Among Socrates’ followers is Lysis; the two young men form an intimate bond. Renault expertly depicts the intricacies of the Ancient Greek world, conveying the impact of famine and conflict.
This novella by Canadian author Margaret Atwood was published in 2005 as part of a first set of books in Canongate’s ‘Myth’ series. Written from the perspective of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, we see the heroine’s tireless efforts to maintain order whilst her husband is away fighting at Troy—bringing up her wayward son Telemachus singlehandedly whilst fighting off hundreds of bloodthirsty suitors who seek to dethrone Odysseus and take Penelope for a wife. Nominated for the 2006 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, we see the dark side of the Odyssey and the suffering of the women at its heart.
This Locus Award-winning novel by American author Ursula K. Le Guin is told from the perspective of Lavinia, the princess with the flaming hair. Though she hardly says a word in Virgil’s Aeneid, she is beautifully reanimated in Le Guin’s modern retelling. Her domineering mother Amata favours King Turnus of Rutulia as Lavinia’s match. But Lavinia has other ideas—she dreams of the famous Aeneas whom she has been told of by the ghost of Virgil, called here simply ‘the poet’. Lavinia’s fate is decided: she cannot concede to wedding Turnus, but with that comes the knowledge that this decision will result in war—Aeneas has her heart.
Haynes’s 2019 novel, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is another retelling of the mythology of the Trojan War from the perspective of lesser-known characters. Animating mythical women such as the silent wife of Aeneas, Creusa, who awakens to find her beloved Troy engulfed by Greek flames, and even the goddesses whose conflict are a primary cause of the war itself. Haynes has also written The Children of Jocasta, a retelling of Oedipus and Antigone from the perspective of the cruelly cursed women that myth overlooked.
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