Title: Achilles

Writer: Elizabeth Cook

Publishing House: Picador

Date of Publication: February 9th 2002

Rating: 5 stars

”We honoured you like a god while you were alive. No one could match you. Now that you’re dead we still speak of you as one who will never be surpassed.”

Achilles. A name loaded with myths and History, a man who became a legend. Fictional or not, Achilles became the first hero- or anti-hero, in my opinion- a man admired and worshipped by Alexander the Great, the greatest of men, whom legend wants to sleep with Homer’s Iliad under his pillow. Achilles. A mortal, born of a sea goddess, and as ferocious and unpredictable as the dwelling of his mother. A man worthy of love and hate, admiration and fear. Brought down by a coward as a punishment for his terrible hubris. He has fallen victim to many a writer who tried to project their views on him, turning him into a monster or a romantic hero. Even Shakespeare got him wrong in his horrible Troilus and Cressida. (Sorry, Will…) Many productions butchered him to pieces, without mercy. This work by Elizabeth Cook is the only one that can find itself side by side with Homer’s epic of epics, painting an image of Achilles that does full justice to his visceral, contradictory character.

Achilles and Agamemnon by Gottlieb Schick (1801) via Wikipedia

”Milk, honey, wine, water.”

Odysseus’ s offers to the dead souls in Hades aim in helping him find his way home as dictated by Circe. One of those that respond is Achilles, shocked and relieved to see his friend still alive. However, he is displeased with Odysseus’ s elegy on his name. He has no illusions, the king of the Myrmidons sees everything clear now that he dwells in the Underworld and he retreats in his shadow home. This is the beginning of his story, told by Cook in exquisite writing, in an elegy that is neither a poem nor a novel but a passage to an era when valour and violence walked hand in hand.

File:Triumph of Achilles in Corfu Achilleion.jpg

Triumph of Achilles in Corfu Achilleion

Cook forgets nothing. Every famous moment associated with Achilles is here, told in vivid, haunting details. His anger for the trap set by Agamemnon with Iphigenia as the victim of a mad war still burns in his dead heart. We gain insight into the characters of Peleus and Thetis with their erotic tour-de-force and of Chiron, the Centaur who shaped Achilles ‘s mentality. Deidamia, his female lover and mother of Neoptolemus, the noble Hector, the abominable Agamemnon, Helen, Cassandra, the tragic Priam, the disgusting Paris, the cunning Odysseus, the heroic Penthesilea, the doomed Polyxena, Briseis and Patroclus, the gods and goddesses who dictate the fate of the heroes parade before our eyes in a tragic performance, echoing all the strengths and weaknesses of the human nature.

King Priam begging Achilles for the return of Hectors body by Alexander Ivanov - Reproduction Oil Painting

King Priam begging Achilles by Alexander Ivanov

The legendary moments are many, exquisitely narrated. There’s a glorious scene of Achilles’s grief for Patroclus, expressed against the River Scamander, the symbol of Troy. The dwell between him and Hector is always harrowing to read, especially if you’ve always sided with the Trojans, like I have. The meeting between Achilles and Priam is one of the saddest, most tragic moments in Literature. Thetis’s lament over the loss of her son is a raw, nightmarish scene.

”She thinks, ‘I am the loneliest person on earth.”

Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan, 1898

Then, Crook does something extremely powerful. Following Achilles’ s death, Helen becomes the narrator. The dark scenes of the fall of Troy are seen through her eyes, as she contemplates what would have happened if Achilles had been her husband (even though he never claimed her, safely hidden in the island of Skyros), the loss of Hector, the only man she appreciated, the cowardly nature of Paris, the monster that was Theseus. The last word belongs to John Keats and his musings on mortality, vanity and the often meagre significance of our existence.

 Deutscher Meister, Achilles und die sterbende Penthesilea, Auktion 1074 Gemälde 15.-19. Jh., Lot 20
Achilles and the dying Penthesilea, 
17th century German School

Now, time for a rant. There are certain traces of implied rape in the story. Obviously. If one is familiar with the tale of the Trojan War (and I mean The Iliad, not the atrocious Hollywood films and TV productions that constantly violate myths and History), then the version of the encounter between Achilles and Penthesilea shouldn’t come as a surprise. The fact that this event was added to the Trojan cycle during late antiquity lends little credit to whether it took place or not. Homer mentions nothing related to supposed necrophilia. Anyway, if one cannot handle it, it’s fine and understandable. However, criticizing Cook for including innuendos in this work shows frightful ignorance, extremely poor perception and a vision that would be conservative even for the 17th century Puritans. Why bother with a war epic, then? Do these readers believe those men fought with flowers and savoir vivre? Well, there’s Hallmark channel to feast their sensitive hearts. We need to understand that Historical Fiction cannot be judged according to modern values but based on the reality of the particular era.

I will break my personal rule and I will ask you not to pay any attention to the negative reviews on Achilles. Some people need to do some basic research before they write. After all, the articles in the Guardian, the Times and the numerous literary awards speak for themselves. We won’t find a more rounded, mature, free from horrible YA phantasies portrait of the man who shaped the Hero’s image and archetype for centuries, a man who still fascinates and terrifies us.

…and repeat after me, Achilles was NOT alive when Troy fell….

”Two destinies, Thetis said. You can choose. Stay in the fight and be known-for ever- as the greatest warrior on earth, and your life will be short as the beat of that wing.”



  1. Rachel says:

    Great review! I’ve been kind of on the fence about this one due to the negative reviews but your analysis makes perfect sense. I just finished The Silence of the Girls and loved it, and in that book Achilles very explicitly rapes Briseis, which obviously isn’t pleasant to read but it’s just… how the story goes. As long as the rape isn’t narratively glorified, the whole ‘there’s rape in this book and therefore the book is bad’ argument is pretty inane. As you say, it’s a book about war, and obviously not everyone likes to read about this which is perfectly understandable but you can hardly hold it against the writer for portraying the horrors of war…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly, Rachel! I think that this whole attitude against portrayals of abuse and rape is mundane and hypocritical. It goes without saying that these were brutal eras, how can a writer depict them faithfully? This was what Cook did, with one of the most difficult figures. I cannot express how delighted I am that you loved ”The Silence of the Girls”, I cannot wait to read it. In ”Achilles”, the relationship between Achilles and Briseis is following Homer’s lines, Briseis is clearly a slave who has fallen in love with Achilles. I’ve always found the relationship between the two extremely intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rachel says:

        Yes, I completely agree with that. There’s a huge difference in rape being portrayed for gratuitous shock value, and rape being an intrinsic part of a story that an author has a responsibility to depict (preferably in a sensitive way). I’m not sure if the YA comment was a dig at The Song of Achilles – admittedly I love TSOA but it’s like my ultimate guilty pleasure; everyone’s characterizations were a total mess and the way Miller skirted around the sexual assault that should have been in the story I felt was a such a cop-out.

        Anyway, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on The Silence of the Girls! The relationship between Briseis and Achilles is portrayed a bit differently here, but the way Barker depicts their dynamic is so fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree with you, Rachel. I think somewhere along the way we try too hard to project modern values to a story that should be seen in a different context. I am sorry to say but yes, this was directed to The Song of Achilles. I tried too hard with it last year and I remember I couldn’t continue after the 40% mark. I hope ”Circe” is better. You know, I have the hardback staring at me for three months now and I am almost afraid to start reading. My expectations aren’t too high, though, so I hope I won’t be too disappointed.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rachel says:

        I think a lot of it’s in the execution as well; I have no problem with a historical fiction novel having feminist or progressive themes as long as they’re subtle and not presented in an anachronistic way. I encountered that recently with a YA book where a historical figure was espousing 21st century feminist concepts and it was so frustrating to read. Finding a way to marry the ancient texts with our modern interpretations is definitely the art of a good retelling and some just fail spectacularly at that.

        The Song of Achilles is a major ‘take it with a grain of salt and just enjoy it for what it is’ situation for me but I completely understand why some Iliad lovers just can’t get on board with it. I really didn’t care for Circe at all, I thought the writing was mediocre and the story just meandered for several hundred pages too many. But I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it, especially as someone who didn’t enjoy TSOA.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Definitely! So many women acted as pioneers for feminism and progress, their stories are absolutely urgent o be told and 9 yimes out of 10 the writers create extremely interesting characters, as long as they don’t fall off in the common ”Look at me, I am a total badass” trope. This is one of the reasons that I avoid most YA books like the plague.

        I think Circe is such a difficult character, so fascinating and complex and obscure. In my opinion, it takes a really talented writer to do justice to her, someone like Hannah Kent or Donoghue. I don’t think that Miller will succeed- despite the rave reviews- in convincing me but we’ll see. Miracles happen, but I have scanned and skimmed through a few chapters and the concerns mentioned in your review became mine as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Rachel says:

        Yes, agreed completely! We already know the women are badass, it’s just patronizing to have that shoved down our throats. Every once in a while I’ll read a really great YA book and I’ll want to venture into the genre more, but it’s just so hard to find ones that are well written and mature where I don’t feel condescended to as an adult reader.

        I’d love to see Kent or Donoghue take on a Greek myth retelling! I think they’d be superb. I completely agree that Miller wasn’t the best writer to handle the depth and complexity of Circe’s character. Where TSOA really excelled for me was its fast pace and how plot-driven it was; when you remove those elements it’s just so much weaker.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. It’s a really hit or miss genre, the YA. When it comes to Magical Realism and fairytale retellings, it is pretty satisfying, most of the times. I don’t like Fantasy, so I can’t relate to most of the books. This is why I loved the Grisha trilogy and Arden’s books so much.

        Kent and Donoghue would be a dream come true when it comes to Greek myths. In my opinion, Toibin’s attempt with the story of Orestes was extremely satisfying. I haven’t read Mary Renault’s books on Alexander the Great, though. I don’t know why, perhaps I should give them a try.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Rachel says:

        I’ve only read the first book in Renault’s Alexander trilogy but I LOVED it – it’s quite dense but still engaging. Plus the historical accuracy is outstanding, and I found out while reading it that the film Alexander was heavily influenced by Renault’s research, so that was cool to see! I think you’d like it! I really must get back to that series.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Then, I am going to start the trilogy soon, Rachel! If you recommend it, it must be excellent😊

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Rachel says:

        I hope you enjoy it! I should really start the second one soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Thank you so much, Rachel!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. janowrite says:

    Thanks for another helpful and informative review – looks like a worthwhile, interesting read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!!😊


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