To the extent that I enjoy seeing how authors handle adaptations of the Iliad, I approached The Rage of Achilles with significant interest. However, while it has its strong points, Hawkins makes significant miscalculations in his treatment of the story - and thus it falls far short of its potential.
First the positive: Hawkins has a tremendous gift for description. He takes great care to make his scenes feel vivid and real, drawing on nuanced details to help us experience what his characters see, feel, smell, and hear. His command over the battlefield is great. With a lot going on during battle scenes, he proves himself quite deft at choosing what to include and what to leave out, so that we experience the sights and sounds of the battle without losing the strategic and dramatic flow of events. In this regard, I was surprised to see such talent in an obscure book like this one.
The rest of the book more or less falls apart, however, mostly due to a single miscalculation on the part of the author. Hawkins sets out with the goal of de-glorifying the story. He wants to knock both the characters and the subject matter off their pedestals, strip the story of its polite veneer, and give us a gritty, no-holds-barred look at flawed humans in a harsh world. He rightly realizes that presenting us a sanitized Iliad, filled with perfectly noble heroes, would be a fatal oversimplification; however, his mistake is in his belief that the more violent, sexual, and nasty the story is, the more profound it is. While it's possible to make a story simplistic in its pure idealism, it's equally possible to, as a reaction, make a story simplistic in its pure depravity - and Hawkins does just that. Without discussing in gross detail, I'll say that he goes beyond taking an "unflinching" look at the story and presents us gratuitous scenes that are nothing but ugliness for the sake of ugliness.
Sex and gore aside, perhaps the ugliest thing about this book is its characters. Hawkins wants to show us an angry Achilles, so he thinks the thing to do is make Achilles as thoroughly nasty as possible. But the problem is that this doesn't make him any more human. Rather than being broadly painted as a one-dimensional paragon of virtue, he becomes a one-dimensional study in all the ways a person can be violent, arrogant, mean, and yes, stupid - and that's no better. Is it good to show a complex character who is full of flaws? Yes. But Achilles is nothing but flaws, and without a feeling for his underlying humanity, we have nothing but a name with a mess of horrid acts attributed to it.
The rest of the characters are no better. Hawkins' treatment of the Greek "heroes" is so patronizing that it descends to the level of parody. He goes to great lengths to pound into our heads the fact that Agamemnon is comically arrogant and that poor Menelaus lives in his shadow. Other than that, however, most of the others are lumped together into a homogeneous mass of middle-aged morons distinguishable only by their names. If they're not drunk or hung over, they're standing around like idiots waiting for the "penecostal fire" to fall while Agamemnon feels the "move of the spirit." Their moods turn on a dime, and they're so susceptible to manipulation that I found myself wondering how these guys managed to run an army. And since the Trojans are just as bad, we find that the story has only two half-intelligent characters. I won't give you their names, but I'll say that one is a Greek hero you'll identify within his first appearance or two, and the other is a made-up Trojan character who's not named Napolieono or Hindenibergo. They serve primarily as "voices of reason" by showing how men with 21st century sensibilities would interact with all the stupid people who lived in ancient times.
The dialogue in this book is a mixed bag. Hawkins often writes conversations in short, fast moving snippets that can be brisk and enjoyably glib at times, but that too often become choppy. Where it fails the most is at the end, where it is certainly not up to task at showing us that Hawkins' brutish Achilles had a plausible change of heart. His climactic decision is thus abrupt and unconvincing.
Other than that, there are a few inexplicable things that left me shaking my head as I read. I have no idea why Hawkins portrayed the Trojans as vastly outnumbering the Greeks; there's no reason for that reversal, and it makes the siege completely implausible. Equally inexplicable is his decision to show the Greeks winning in Achilles' absence. Why? It serves no purpose other than to force the author to contrive a half-hearted explanation for why Agamemnon would want to beg Achilles to return.
If the story as I described it appeals to you, then by all means buy this book. But don't use it as your tool for learning what the Iliad is about. Aside from the fact that it is dripping with irony from start to finish, Hawkins changes so much of the story that you'll walk away from his book with more misconceptions than knowledge. How much of this is deliberate on his part and how much is simple mistakes is hard to say (when I hear him talk about the Iliad in interviews, I squirm with embarrassment for his sake - so fundamentally lacking is his knowledge of the source material).
Either way, The Rage of Achilles is not the Iliad. And forget this notion that it's more complex or profound than its source. Homer's characters are far more rounded and fleshed out than the yahoos in this story... And the way the Iliad juggles the complexities of war is much more insightful than the blunt "war is bad/people are all jerks/the ancients are stupid" message presented in this novel.
I appreciate Hawkins as an aspiring writer, especially as one who decided to base a story (however loosely) on the Iliad. However, this one didn't work for me. I would advise readers to skip this and read a good modern translation of the Iliad.