Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Song of Achilles

Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Mythology, revisionism, fantasy,romance
My rating:  ★★ (4 of 5 stars)

The true brand of a good tale, I once heard, lies in a string of four words signifying the storyteller’s power over his audience: “And then what happened?” These words indicate a sliver of magic in the middle of action, wedged between this or that plot point; it is a question posed as a half-baked sterling review, an evidence that the truly gifted tale-spinners can prod readers to continue thumbing through the pages for answers.

Contemporary literature pushes the challenge to summon these words up a notch, especially for authors who opt to give revisionism or retellings a go. How would you keep your audience spellbound when they already know what would happen?

Madeline Miller knows exactly what to do, as evidenced in her debut novel The Song of Achilles

Unfazed by the herculean task of taking on one of the greatest Greek literary masterpieces of all time, Miller manages to weave a story that feels simultaneously old and fresh. She borrows significant parts of Homer’s The Iliad for her novel’s backbone, though instead of giving the narrator’s seat to her titular character, she bestows it to a rather vague figure in the source material: Patroclus, the brother-in-arms and, in this universe’s canon, lover of Achilles.

(That detail alone could ignite a debate, but let us take it here as a fact the same way Plato did in his Symposium, Aeschylus in his lost play Myrmidons, or William Shakespeare in his Troilus and Cressida, shall we?)

The story unfolds as a bildungsroman. After accidentally killing a boy over a game of dice, the young prince Patroclus is exiled from his homeland to the faraway kingdom of Phthia, where he crosses paths with Achilles for the first time. Achilles, branded well even before he was born as “the best of all the Greeks”, is golden, beautiful, swift, and strong—essentially everything that Patroclus thinks himself to be the opposite of. But the envy and bitterness Patroclus harbors towards the boy vanished when they forge an unlikely a bond, a friendship that soon blossoms into love. They grow up together and nurture these feelings, despite risking the ire of the gods. Destiny, however, catches up to them: Helen of Sparta was abducted, and every Greek hero was called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Choosing a life replete with glory and fame over one lived in obscurity and irrelevance, Achilles joins the cause. Fearing for his beloved, Patroclus could only follow.

And this, as many of its readers would know, is where the tale latches itself onto the fateful events of The Iliad: how the Greeks and the Trojans engage in a ten-year warfare, how Achilles is dishonored by King Agammemnon, how Achilles nurses his wounded ego and withdraws from the battles, and how Patroclus decides to take matters into his own hands, unwittingly diving headfirst into his own downfall.

Enthralling and soul-wrenchingly poignant, I think The Song of Achilles proved it rightly deserved the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.

Since this patchwork of Greek events has been refashioned as the autobiography of the self-effacing Patroclus, the novel in its entirety takes an unassuming tone. It seems that Miller makes it a point for Patroclus to take the whole vehicle with him, as even his personality makes the novel’s title an altruistic dedication to the love of his life instead of being the story his own life.

This takes us to what many “classic fans” are pointing out as this story’s Achilles’ Heel: characterization. I have seen it argued many times that Miller’s Patroclus is in no way the same Patroclus that Homer created. The former is molded to be overtly maternal, a tad too “feminine” by preferring the art of medicine and cookery, buzzed by his undying love, and a “total zero” when it comes to the battlefield. Homer’s Patroclus, they say, is much stronger. He fought like a true warrior and is not underscored to be the bottom to Achilles’ top.

What they failed to pay attention to is the obvious: it is Miller’s Patroclus, not Homer’s. How is it that any Greek myth can have fifty versions that can be considered correct, and this cannot? Note, too, that Miller’s Patroclus is crafted to be an unreliable narrator. Just because Patroclus considers himself weak does not mean he truly is. What kind of assets should a character possess to be considered “strong”, anyway? Why would he be tagged in a prophecy as “The Best of the Myrmidons” if he is weak? Miller is throwing clues at you here. This is The Iliad sailing in the modern times, and she is making you take a step back and reassess what a “strong” character should be like.

Achilles, for his part, is a striking albeit lonely portrait of a Greek warrior. Throwing away my initial view of him as a child-man throwing a tantrum, I reopened my eyes to his character to learn his real tragedy—his semi-divine birth. He is a bevy of almost’s: almost a god, almost immortal, almost good enough. What’s worse is he would not simply die; he is prophesied to die young.

Acutely aware of his mortality, he seeks eternal life in the form of fame and glory, of his story etched in songs and urns. He simply cannot hold back if he wants to be immortalized. His emotions then, too, are of extremes, explaining why he practically goes berserk when he learns of what happens to Patroclus at the hands of Hector. See, Achilles does not seek any other person to get close to because he already has everything in Patroclus: a bosom companion, a friend, an adviser, a lover. Losing the man equates to everything being taken away from him. With his grief and wrath tearing through his hubris, he returns to the battlefield not for honor or reputation like everyone else, but for his fallen beloved friend.

Stepping back for the big picture, these two characters are pushed in the forefront romance-bound, with big chunks of the novel portraying them as younglings exploring their feelings. With that, I think it is only understandable how…hormonally charged some chapters came to be (I could do without that certain soft porn-ish bit actually, but we have passion-crazed teens at our hands, so…)

This does not mean the whole piece has degenerated into a lump of, to borrow from fandom-speak, vanilla slash. Even if emotions are highlighted, there are so much more going on in the story that Miller successfully delivers. From time to time there are slips with switches between modern and period-appropriate tones, but these are not exactly unforgivable. The purple prose that threateningly rears its head more than once in it is not deplorable either, as it sometimes do lend the words a splendor that readers can enjoy. If I will have one thing I disliked about it, it is how hastily-paced the chapters of the Trojan War seem to be, presented in stark contrast of the slow build-up of the first half of the book.

But the real beauty of The Song of Achilles, I think, lies in how Miller utilizes her literary tools to tug at the readers’ feelings. It could not be reiterated enough that the material she worked on is not new—we are talking about a three thousand-year-old poem here, and there is no escaping that even if her market consists mainly of young adults. Those who have played hokey instead of completing the required Homer readathon back in high school must have taken to SparkNotes for their Iliad and Odyssey book reports; if not, they might have watched an Iliad-inspired flick starring a very brawny Achilles played by Brad Pitt (with an armor-stealing Patroclus as his…uh, baby cousin). There is practically no reason for anyone to not know anything about it. Because of this, she knew she could not make the readers ask “and then what happened?”. What she did instead is wrote the tale in a way that will make her audience say, “This author knows that I know what will happen, and she’s making sure I’m relishing every step I’m taking until I get there.”

This technique gives her foreshadowing a different flavor, especially the ones pointing to the looming tragedy involving the two main characters. The audience that knows will take these bits of forewarnings as rungs—painful ones—towards the inevitable ending. I surmise that every time Achilles nonchalantly wonders “What has Hector ever done to me?”, a staunch supporter of the leads gets a shard of his or her heart shattered again, tenfold.

Over all, this has been one roller coaster of a read. I repeatedly go back to some passages just to revel at their raw beauty, sometimes to even cry at them. I would shamelessly admit that this book made me want to revisit Homer’s masterpieces again, just so I could see my darling characters again in a universe that classicists have unreservedly adored.

Four stars for a stunning read.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: The Wrath and the Dawn

Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genre: Fantasy, romance
My Rating: ★★ (4 of 5 stars)

The way I see it, we readers are willing preys of the printed word. We lay ourselves open before the tales we encounter and wait for their best blows; we crave stories that are chiefly meant to enchant us. They need not be perfect. We just seek for works that can hold us under a spell, rendering us unable to put them down until the wee hours of the morning. We are always, always in search for a masterpiece that will beguile us with its beauty and power.

Finding such a book in the landscape of contemporary literature is a difficult task, especially around the young adult parts. You have to dig through layers upon layers of rubble to get to the actual gems. Fortunately, I found one in the form of Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn—a stunning jewel in its own right, although one with facets that necessitate a little more carving, honing, and polishing. 

Taking roots from the beloved classic A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn unfolds in a kingdom ruled by a brutal young caliph named Khalid, who takes a new bride every night only to have her killed at sunrise. Every day, a family mourns the loss of a daughter murdered without reason or meaning. Every day, riots rise but get easily quelled. Things only start to change when sixteen-year-old Sharzhad, whose dearest friend fell victim to Khalid, volunteers to be a bride with an underlying motive of avenging her friend.

The nightly stories that Sharzhad tells Khalid bought her several dawns, guaranteeing her survival. Things are going according to plan until she realizes that the king is not the monster that she thought he would be…and until her treacherous little heart begins falling for him. Though she teeters into surrendering to her feelings, Sharzhad decides it is an unforgivable betrayal and readies herself to take Khalid’s life despite her love for him.

Engrossing and truly “unputdownable”, The Wrath and the Dawn is brimming with intrigue, secrets, magic, and flavors that will appeal to the palate of readers who clamor for something different in the YA market.

Most of its characters are vibrant and intricate. Its abrasive heroine, for instance, balances out her fiery verve with a coldly manipulative charm; her way with words couples itself with a fairly dangerous level of cunning. But when matters relating to emotions barge in, she gets herself in a tug-of-war of decisions that she finds so difficult to win. She repeatedly scolds herself for the deplorable treachery to her friend and to dozens of other murdered girls, yet her heart screams an intelligible plea to see the good side to their executioner. I would have dismissed her as a lost cause then and there, but there is something about her that makes me root for her, despite the gigantic neon sign at the back of my mind screaming Stockholm Syndrome.

Then we have the enigmatic Khalid, unflinching wearer of the tags of a madman, a murderer, and a monster. It is tough to decode what hides beneath his impassive fa├žade, but one revelation after another, we get a peek of the broken eighteen-year-old boy that he really is; we learn how he is trapped in a web of deceits and choices that becomes even more complex when Sharzhad steps into the picture. However, despite the reveals, I still felt like he persisted to be a half-solved puzzle in the end. I expected to close the book with a clearer grasp of his character, but other than the reasons for his actions, I see nothing else that can convince me he is fully fleshed out. I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel, if only that installment will zero in on molding him into a fuller…can we say antihero?

Among the characters, my favorite is Captain of the Guard Jalal Al-Khoury. Armed with his teasing personality, a scorching passion in protecting his family, and a stubborn resolve to see the good in people, he comes out to be a lot more likable than his cousin Khalid. As for the others, I’m going to need more prodding to even start liking them. I have always been thirsting for YA books with no love triangle in sight, so I surmise my several rounds of eye-rolls while reading about Taqir, Sharzhad’s childhood sweetheart who embarks in a journey a la-Iliad to rescue her, are only understandable. But I guess without him there would be no non-romantic conflict in the sequel (i.e. a war against a perceived ruthless ruler), so I have to give him that.

Also one of my problems with this ensemble is that there are not enough female characters who can parallel Sharzhad. An addition of one would be a welcome move in this largely masculine universe. Sure, there is the neighboring kingdom’s Yasmine, but aside from her snakelike allure and hints that she may be the yin to Sharzhad’s yang, the story gives no proof to further support it.

What I really loved about this is the world-building. Ahdieh proves to be a master in its craft. She makes turning the chapters a sensory experience—so vivid an experience in fact that the passages can substitute as tickets for the readers to the ancient realms of Middle East. With her words, I enjoyed touring the caliphate of Khorasan; I had fun basking in all its heat and hues, almost feeling the sun on my skin and almost hearing the scimitars clang against each other. I was colored curious by the intricacies of this universe. I became thirsty to learn more about Parthia and the kingdoms lying in the dunes beyond, the horsemen tribes of Badawi, the mystery of the hired assassins Fida’i, and many more.

However, there is a pitfall some portions of the story unsurprisingly trips on: purple prose. While most of the descriptions successfully helped in popping up the setting, there are parts that appear to be overdone, giving off an almost cloying effect. This extends to the adjectives for some of the characters. Khalid gets peppered with the most unflattering ones, as many of his portraits become too reminiscent of those brawny leads in old paperback romances. But hey, thanks to the novel’s curiosity-piquing plot points and turns, I managed to sift through those parts without taking a breather.

The Wrath and the Dawn, at its core, is a love story—it does not really pretend to be something else. That is the reason why it does not saturate itself with too much cutthroat politics similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, even if this is omnipresent in the novel and there is a hinted promise to tap more into that in the sequel. That is reason why the book gently carries human emotions to the writer’s playpen, poking at every feeling and mixing them altogether to bring forth varying levels of dimensionality to some of the characters involved.

I’d go out on a limb and say I enjoyed this book tremendously, even if tons of questions have all but crowded every corner of my mind while I was reading it. For specifics:

  • The rape/detached sex. The fateful wedding night. Amid the discussions of whether it was rape or not (with arguments saying it was our girl who initiated it to gain Khalid’s trust even after he tells her he expects nothing more than her life at sunrise), let us just focus on Sharzhad herself. It would have been more realistic had she felt more strongly about the icy consummation of their marriage instead of just letting pass a shrug in the form of “At least he didn’t try to kiss me.” And she was a virgin, for god’s sake! I just cannot fathom why her thoughts would not linger a bit about it, even if she has perhaps long accepted it as part of her plan. It struck me as odd and…cold. It also would have been a good opportunity for the author to explore such a taboo topic.
  • Stockholm Syndrome. It did not escape my notice that Sharzhad falls in love with Khalid even before she is made aware of the reason behind the killings. But I noted too, that it is in Sharzhad’s personality to seek out the good in everyone or to search for reasons before she takes action. In the process of knowing her enemy, she realizes what every other kind person around her tells her: that Khalid is not the hateful slaughterer she thinks he is. This is okay for me because it makes for a good story and a decent exploration of the characters’ “literary anatomies”. What I am uncomfortable with is the knowledge that some very young girls out there are probably reading this and contort their idea of real-life romance. Kids, this is fiction, okay? A dark one with a twistedly romantic swing, but still fiction.
  • Solutions to…the reason for the bridal murders. I would not fully spoil it here, but after knowing the reason, I thought they could have made a way around it. Find a way to not kill innocent daughters and, say, choose female criminals on the death rows instead, or old people who may volunteer if they learn what the reason entails. Perhaps they have attempted it and did not work? I am awaiting mentions of it in the next book.
Notwithstanding its more than a handful of flaws, I admit I was still shackled by the magic Ahdieh weaves through her tale. Maybe this is what Khalid had felt when Sharzhad surprises him with zero effort. I eagerly sought for answers, for the next moves, for the next scenes, and I am still excited to get my hands on the second book, The Rose and The Dagger. I think this is what stories should be like: truly bewitching despite its imperfections, keeping its audiences on their toes while they await the conclusion.

Four stars for an enthralling experience.