Review - Achilles: A Love Story

Achilles: A Love Story

My rating:

Tags: Historical Ancient Greece

Posted in Book Reviews on February 3, 2012

This review was originally written for the Speak Its Name web site:

The Greek era has always been one of my favorites for historical romance. Perhaps it’s because Mary Ranault’s Alexander books were the first historical novels with a gay bent I ever read, or maybe it’s just because it was a time when love between men was not only accepted, but almost expected. So I had high, perhaps unreasonable, hopes when offered “Achilles: A Love Story”.

This is the story of Homer’s Iliad, re-told from the point of view of Antilochus, a prince, the son and heir of King Nestor of Pylos. The young prince has formed a sort of obsession with the already famous Achilles, who is only two years older. Antilochus comes off as a bit of a stalker at first, determined that one day he will meet the object of his desire, and they will instantly become lovers.

Then comes news of the impending war. Kind Agamemnon comes to Pylos to enlist King Nestor’s support in the war against Troy. Nestor somewhat reluctantly agrees. He and Odysseus then embark on a tour of the other Greek states to garner their support. One of the stops is to be Pythia, where the support of King Peleus and his son the mighty Achilles will be sought. Antilochus naturally jumps at the chance to finally meet his lover-to-be, and begs to go along. Of course, once the party lands in Pythia, Antilochus is slapped with the cold hard reality of Patroclus. Somehow, the fact that Achilles already had a lover to whom he was practically joined at the hip had escaped the young prince.

Antilochus is crushed, but he doesn’t give up the determination to one day make Achilles his. First though, there’s a war to fight. Nestor, Achilles and the rest of the Greeks take off to fight, while Antilochus is deemed too young and left behind in the care of his mother. The prince cools his heels in Pylos for eight long years. His mother won’t let him leave to join the war without word from his father, and Nestor never sends for his son.

Tired of waiting and anxious to partake of the glory of battle, as well as win the heart of Achilles, Antilochus arranges to make his way to Troy with the help of a sexy sea captain. Arriving in Troy, the prince faces the wrath of his father, but Achilles intervenes and it’s agreed that Antilochus will serve as Achilles’ squire. Actually, he will serve both Achilles and Patroclus since they live together. At first this seems like a boon, but faced with the obvious love the two have for each other every day does drive home how impossible Antilochus’ hopes are, although he never gives them up.

Not that Antilochus doesn’t get to experience what Achilles is like as a lover. Achilles and Patroclus seem to have an ‘open relationship’ and Achilles takes Antilochus from time to time when Patroclus isn’t around, and apparently Patroclus also beds the prince at least once. Achilles does teach Antilochus the art of warfare, and eventually the prince returns to his father’s service to lead his own battalion as captain.

Antilochus fights alongside Achilles on occasion, and he is there to witness the capture of Chryseis, a priestess of Apollo. This is a pivotal event that sparks the tiff between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ultimately leads to first the death of Patroclus, and then Achilles. If you know the Iliad, even the Marvel Comics version, then you know most of what happens.

The author does a rather good job, on the whole, of capturing the epic style of the Homeric tales. This is in spite of a huge number of typos and a few seeming anachronisms - would King Agamemnon really say “we’re in a pretty pickle”? However, the authentic sound of the prose was not entirely a good thing. I found that the formality of the style put a distance between the reader and the characters. I never quite connected to Antilochus in the way I would have liked.

Of course, a lot of this is because the author doesn’t really share much of what Antilochus is feeling. He’s very good at bringing alive the blood-lust and fog of battle with some rather eloquent prose, but when it comes to love - what the book is supposed to be about - Antilochus gets very terse and even downright vague. You would expect someone so besotted with a man that when he and Achilles do couple, even if it’s not as lovers, you would think he would go on and on about it. But Antilochus gives us little more than a sentence or two. He has flings with others on occasion, but says no more about them and sometimes simply infers that he’s slept with a man without really coming out and saying it.

As for Achilles, he never really becomes a fully fleshed character. He remains more the mythical abstract object of Antilochus’ obsession rather than a real person, or demi-god. While Achilles is the key character in the story, he doesn’t actually appear in person that much. We spend more time getting to know Odysseus and King Agamemnon. In many ways, this book is more about the folly of war and the greed of men than about love, but then I don’t suppose many people would want to read a book titled “Agamemnon: A Drunken Sod.”

Given the degree to which any discussion of love was avoided, in the end I’m not sure what the “Love Story” of the title is alluding to, even after reading the author’s afterword. Is it Antilochus’ unrequited obsession for Achilles? That never seemed real to me, and hardly qualifies as a love story. No, I have a hard time seeing this book as a love story, or a romance of any kind. It’s a capable, though unexceptionable, piece of classical literature with a slight homoerotic bent, which is why I’ve given it three stars.