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on 23 November 2015
One of her best. A sensitive, and beautifully written book brining to life a minor character from Virgil's epic Aeneid. Can't recommend it too highly
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on 13 March 2014
Little is known of the historic Lavinia - she only has a few lines in Vergil’s Aenead - but Ms LeGuin has brought hr to life for us. The strangeness of the early pastoral life of Latium, from kitchen to war is completely credible. The research shows but never disturbs. The sacredness of spirit realm which was so important to Romans up to and sometimes beyond early Christianisation is integrated, with visions and mysticism as an important driver in Lavinia’s daily life.

I felt completely engaged with Lavinia’s thoughts and emotions; she had a strong sense of doing the right thing, defined as piety, accepting events when appropriate, but holding firm when she believed in the vision of her fate. Ms LeGuin has been very clever in bringing in the poet Vergil to converse with Lavinia, throwing in the suggestion that Lavinia is a mere construct. It is, of course, for the reader to decide…

As a convinced ‘Roman nut’ who has a penchant for strong women characters, this was a natural book choice for me and the reward was a clever and well-written story,
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on 3 September 2009
This has sent me back to those parts of the Aeneid that I used to skip. Ursula Le Guin has brought them to life in a most fascinating and vivid way. She has managed to turn Aeneas, previously considered rather a boringly 'pious' hero, into someone who could be both a good fighter and a good king and someone whose past tragedies did not prevent him from being optimistic about the future. It is often difficult to depict 'good' characters vividly, but she manages it with Lavinia and Aeneas.

The author clearly shows that, despite the attention given to wars and kings in chronicles and epics, they were really on the periphery of human life. Most people most of the time were only concerned with their farms and their families. I am also impressed by the way she dealt with the problem of the epic gods and goddeses interfering with human lives - something that has not been done convincingly since Homer. The dialogue between Lavinia and the poet over this matter maintains a role for the divine in everyday life without having to trip over personifications of it. That may well be closer to the original Indo-European beliefs anyway.

I am most impressed by this book as both a historical novel and a commentary on Virgil.
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I read this, utterly spellbound, in-between the weekend obligations of a momentarily single parent. It set a mood - of mystical wonder, of historical adventure, of female power - that lasts not only through the book but as a spark of inspiration as I cooked, drove the kids around, and cleaned. It is the perfect entertainment that also passes the bar of serious literature, in a way similar in quality to the Mists of Avalon, also a myth/history reconstruction from the point of view of a strong yet very human woman.

This is the story of the Latin queen who married Aeneas, the exiled Trojan, who arrived on the shores of Italy and spawned the line of kings that founded Rome. The reader is treated to a portrait of her mind and faith as she navigates life in a tiny kingdom hemmed in by enemies and the fragile alliances that her father established to safeguard an oasis of peace for a few years. The times, of course, are extremely savage, the religion polytheistic but also spirit-driven, lending a vivid feeling of the sacred in certain places with dreams and omens, mystical seats of unexplained power, and the cooperation of outside events in accordance with her religious vision.

Livinia is a beauty coming of age, with a range of suitors that includes the formidable Turnus, a cousin whom her insane mother champions. Her choice will, she knows, determine the balance of power for central Italy, perhaps establishing an empire the likes of which has never been known. Turnus is a vital and egotistical prince, who will surely resort to violence to unite the two kingdoms if she refuses him. She is undecided and goes to sacred ground to seek the advice of greater powers. There, she meets a spectre from across time, who speaks to her of her fate and responsibility as Aeneas approaches. He is her destiny, a merging of peoples that will give rise to Rome.

All of this may sound too fantastical to allow readers to suspend their disbelief. However, with a truly masterful performance, LeGuin pulls it off to perfection. I found Livinia's feelings and emotions completely believable, as executed in the consistent mood of awe and the power of fate that permeates every page. It is as if you are there experiencing it with her. There are several passages where she describes the shield of Aeneas, whose images appear alive, evoking pivotal moments over the next 800 years of Roman history, to the time of Augustus.

As she tells the story, Livinia's voice is a unique literary creation. So far as I understood it, she is speaking as a timeless piece of art, a poetic ideal who has been given immortality by Vergil in the spic poem, The Aeneid. The poet's power is seen as a magical attempt to plumb the truth of a life, even though she is a minor character in his poem. His act of creation has liberated her from time, yet she tells the story of her life and sometimes disagrees with him. It is a dialogue unlike anything I have ever seen in a novel. Again, like her religion, it is completely believable.

This book can stand on its own. But as a classics major, I was awed at the accuracy of LeGuin's references and the way she weaved historical information into a mythic narrative. Her subtlety and erudition are great joys, with every page dense with historical allusion and mystery at ancient supernatural powers.

This masterpiece is the first book I was able to finish by LeGuin, whose science fiction has never grabbed me. Warmly recommended.
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on 14 October 2015
In the Aeneid, Virgil allows Lavinia not a single word of her own. I imagine that it was with some sense of vengeance, despite her admiration for his poetry, that LeGuin writes Lavinia entirely in her voice and from her point of view. It is mostly the voice of a late teen, when Lavinia is doted upon by her father, king of the Latins, and treated almost as a stepchild by her mother since the death of her sons, Lavinia's adored brothers. So much of the story is Lavinia's that both the father and the mother are reduced, flattened to noble, sensible king and the scheming, slightly unhinged queen.

Aeneas himself, when he appears doe not fare so well either. He too is noble and full of piety, unlike his son by a previous marriage and most certainly unlike the suitor her mother has picked for Lavinia. "He has no piety," is her dismissal. It is not what we think of these days when piety is almost an embarrassment. It meant the reverence for life, for the gods, for the bonds between gods and men, and for those among men.

The sense of place in Lavinia is wonderful. The main character herself is drawn with shrewdness and sympathy as are one or two of the servants. But the places, the cave in which she encounters the vision or ghost of the poet (who would not be born for another eleven or twelve hundred years), the sulphurous springs nearby, and the salt beds at the mouth of the "father river" (the Tiber) are vivid to the reader.

The last portion of the book tells of life after Lavinia marries Aeneas, the modified rapture of nursing her son at her beasts "bursting with milk," and then alas, as revealed by the poet, the unexpected death of Aeneas, life cut short my a careless moment. Lavinia's life thereafter is a pale shadow of her youth and adult struggles.

There are notes of a pedantic nature I must record. Perhaps the anachronisms are from Virgil, but perhaps the modern author must be more careful. It is doubtful that archery was common in the post Trojan War period, and it is certain that the arrows would not have been tipped with steel. Homer himself makes no distinction between the Trojans and the Danaoi, as if the former were members of a distantly related tribe. But it is now a lively controversy over how Latin or even Italian were the Etruscans.
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on 19 May 2012
This is a novel about Lavinia, the woman Aeneas marries in Virgil's "Aeneid" after he arrives in Italy following the sack of Troy. In Virgil's poem Lavinia hardly appears, though she is fought over: Ursula le Guin turns her into a rounded personage. Much of the novel deals with events in the latter books of the "Aeneid", but from a very different, woman's viewpoint. Virgil's ghost appears talking from time to Lavinia, telling her of the future. This sounds odd, but is presented in a convincing way, as are other encounters with the supernatural. War between Trojans and Latins breaks out, and Ursula le Guin evokes the its horrors - but not melodramatically, for Lavinia is matter-of-fact about them, and this makes them all the more shocking. For the most part, emotion is understated, as it is in, for example, the Icelandic sagas, and the book is all the more powerful because of that.

The novel re-creates well a society very different from our own, where oracles and contact with spirits and gods are expected, where women struggle for influence in a warrior-dominated world. As always with Ursula le Guin, it is beautifully written.

I have given the book four rather than five stars because for me it tailed off a little in the closing sections, where I felt less involved in the narrative. But overall it is moving, and well-worth reading. It is likely to linger in your mind.
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on 4 May 2011
I enjoyed this book for its credible evocation of a very different time and place; for the sense it gives of research thoroughly done but applied with a light hand; and most of all for the beauty of Le Guin's prose.

Lavinia never speaks a word in The Aeneid; Le Guin gives her a voice. She also has Lavinia muse on her own status as the creation of a poet, and the form of limited immortality her incomplete rendering gives her. The book can be read as a simple narrative, and as an invitation to the reader to muse on the roles of creator and created.

Le Guin's cool, detached style meant I wasn't moved by the story, even when it was recounting tragic loss. Lavinia tells us she adored Aeneas, and I believed her--because she's an honest girl, not because I felt her emotion. Her Lavinia reminded me quite a lot of Tenar, who is one of my favourites of Le Guin's creations. They have much of the same strength, patience, and devotion to duty.

This is a fine piece of work, and a pleasure to read.
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on 22 May 2008
Maria Bello's character in "The Jane Austen Book Club" reads Ursula Le Guin and is completely taken with the books, and knowing nothing of Le Guin, I found it necessary to right that fact.

"Lavinia" is the untold story of Vergil's silent Lavinia in "Aeneide". An oracle prophecises that she, a Latin king's daughter, will marry a foreigner and be the cause of a war. In Vergil's version she never speaks and is in every way a background character. In Le Guin's "Lavinia" Lavinia is the narrator.

Lavinia is the daughter of King Latium, who is the cause of a war between Turnus and Aeneas and who marries Aeneas - "Lavinia" is the story of this. "Lavinia" is also a dialogue between Le Guin (through Lavinia) with the poet a.k.a. Vergil about Lavinia's character in "Aeneide" and the "Aeneide's" perhaps unfinished state. And this is the part, which in my opinion, makes Le Guin's "Lavinia" soar.

Le Guin easily moves around the fact, that "Lavinia" is a known story retold, as she lets Vergil tell Lavinia the story of the "Aeneide", partly because of the narrative skill and voice of Lavinia. Lavinia - as the reader - has a firm inkling of what will happen. The war. Lavinia marrying Aeneas. Aeneas' death. And Le Guin still enchants the reader with this story.

"Lavinia" is above and beyond a retelling of an old story. It truly gives an old story new voice and new life. Le Guin's writing and storytelling craftmanship is extraordinary. Almost 5 stars.

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on 22 November 2009
I confess to having never read The Aeneid, in Latin or in translation. However, that was not necessary to allow my full enjoyment of Ursula Le Guin's mystical fantasy centered on the young princess Lavinia. In Virgil's epic poem, Lavinia,daughter of King Latinus, has a walk-on non-speaking part. Here she is centre stage, a modern, intelligent, wise and political young woman who takes risks for her people, at the same time, doubting her own reality.
It reminded me of the almost unobtainable, 'Till we have Faces' by CS Lewis in the mystical background to the tale. There is conflict, romance and suspense in this gripping story which has been been compared to `I Claudius'. For readers who never read `fantasy', start here and discover just how good and different it can be.
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on 8 June 2016
This held my attention throughout, a comprehensive acknowledgment of the importance of Lavinia in story of Aeneas. I particularly enjoyed the involvement of 'the poet' which was dealt with in a novel and engaging way, it's not often a character speaks directly to its creator, to gain insight and guidance. The writing is brilliantly evocative of the time (it stands alone as a story and is not a history lesson) and a thoroughly good read.
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