The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.
This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.
I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.
The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:
As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”
This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.