Mini review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

I got this book as a gift from my good friend, The Red Witch – thank you very much my dear, I do appreciate!
Book info:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Harcourt
ISBN: 0151014248
Language: English
Target audience: adults
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction
Summary (from Goodreads):

In the Aeneid, Vergil’s hero, a refugee from Troy, fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word. Now, Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was just an obscure, muddy village near seven hills.

Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until she turns eighteen and the suitors come. Her mother wants her to marry her cousin, the handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner—that she will be the cause of a bitter war—and that her husband will not live long. She is visited by Vergil as an oracle, experiencing a kind of time travel. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life which she lost only too early.

What I liked:

First, the idea to present ancient Rome at its very beginning, when it practically didn’t exist as a town, let alone a country, fascinated me. I haven’t read Vergil’s the Aeneid but I was roughly aware what it is about and I wanted to find out more.Le Guin made the obscure world of Bronze Age Italy a place one can feel and taste, a place where the influence of oracles and gods is clearly felt and people live in full accordance with nature and its forces. It is obvious the authoress did a lot of research concerning the daily life and early religious beliefs of proto-Romans and she created a very believable vision of their world which I enjoyed.

The narration was slow and a bit detached but with that mesmerizing, very reflexive, watchful quality of a fairy tale. Overall not unpleasant but still not fully satisfying…ok, you can finds my complaints below.

The main heroine, Lavinia, is also a huge asset here – she  goes from meek, unquestioning, submissive maiden to someone who learns to stand up for herself and her child and lead others. She can be called a kick-ass heroine, for sure; she is determined to make her own choices but also fully aware of her own ficitionality.

What I didn’t like:

It is not exactly a fault but I felt that you cannot read this novel and fully appreciate it without having read Vergil’s poem; what’s more, you really ought to have read it recently. Although I knew the outlines of the story of Aeneas sometimes I had to stop reading and remind myself about some details. So be warned: LeGuin’s book is less a novel than a commentary  in unconventional because fantasy-scented form. If you haven’t heard about Vergil, Troy  and/or Aeneid, you might feel a bit lost.

Also, having read books with very complicated, dynamic plot lines previously I wished for two things reading Lavinia: more action and more linear narration. I must admit there was very little plot and you got flashes from the future in between. No surprising twists and turns in this one – something which took off the edge, making me less eager to finish this book because I (and the main heroine as well) had been told what would happen even before the action was actually described. I kept waiting for the climax and somehow I missed it. 

Finally I would like to see more of Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro), apparently a poet with an interesting biography.

Final verdict:

This was still  a very fine, intelligent piece of work, and a pleasure to read, definitely encouraging me to try other LeGuin books.

This entry was posted in book review, fantasy, historical, mini review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Mini review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. I'm glad you liked it! Sometimes though, when you know the original tale too well, it keeps you from enjoying the new one. Sounds like LeGuin didn't change the bones of the story; she just gave Lavinia a voice.I agree though, I prefer a linear narrative. A little flashing back and forth is fine but sounds like there was a bit too much. The Romans were very superstitious, they consulted oracles for everything.

  2. Mel says:

    I have to confess I've not read LeGuin – or for that matter any Vergil poems. Still it sound like an intersting book! 🙂

  3. anachronist says:

    The Red Witch – no, LeGuin didn't change the bones of the story but she added plenty, namely the new heroine and her perspective. The climate of the book was impeccable imvho but I did resent the fact that Vergil appeared as a very chatty oracle and well, kind of spoiled the plot.Mel, LeGuin is a well-acclaimed author, definitely worth trying. This novel was interesting despite some minor quibbles (but you know me, I rarelly not complain 😉 ).

  4. Tracy says:

    This one sounds really interesting! I'm not familiar with the Aeneid, but it sounds like this one would tempt me to read it (which is no bad thing).

  5. anachronist says:

    Hi Tracy, I might read the Aeneid as well, the book definitely made me curious.

  6. Hm… not a fan of the old poems and stories. I have read them, but only remember snippets. So, I'm not sure if it is for me. However, great review!

  7. @Vergil appeared as a very chatty oracleI don't think he was so chatty with Dante. :-)How did this one compare with Robert Harris' Imperium?

  8. anachronist says:

    Melissa old poems and stories have often very contemporary vibes when you read them and then you can find the tropes repeated in other books which I find fascinating. @ The Red Witch – I must admit I liked Imperium better because it was narrated in a much less vague style. No methaphysics, no oracles or dying poets speaking to you in your dream, only dirty political tricks. I guess I am a tad too down-to-earth for LeGuin.

  9. Blodeuedd says:

    I have seen it at the library so perhaps 🙂 Then again those stories are so depressing, yes life

  10. anachronist says:

    This one wasn't very depressing but of course Lavinia experienced death and loss and when I read about Aeneas and Dido…well, that's one horrible tragedy.

  11. I thought a historical novel was a bit of a departure for her. So she wrote it more like a fantasy novel. Shame really, it mught have made a good historical tne sixties, an arceologist R.F. Paget found the oracle of the dead that Aeneas may have visited.

  12. anachronist says:

    Yes, it was kind of fantasy-flavoured and fairy-tale-ish. Still you can't compare the times of Aeneas (half-mythological, no written sources, plenty of speculations and so on)with the times of Cicero (fully historical with first-hand accounts).

  13. Hoo-boy! Look at all those typos! I'll blame it on the iPad. is an article on Paget's book.

  14. anachronist says:

    Lol don't worry about typos my dear! I followed the link – fascinating stuff, thanks!

  15. Great review. I like the simple cover. I suppose I ought to read the poem first before attempting as you suggested.

  16. anachronist says:

    Definitely a good idea, Lena. The cover is classic indeed.

Comments are closed.