Simply one of the most impressive novels of the year, in any genre.
Le Guin is the undisputed queen of science fiction and fantasy. Her early works (notably the Hainish Cycle and the Earthsea novels) helped establish science fiction and fantasy as a true literary mode, capable of exploring deeper human truths and sociological trends. She cleared a path for female authors in traditionally male dominated genres and did it all with graceful, meaningful and eminently readable storytelling.
If there is any room for complaint against Le Guin it is that her early novels were so good that she has struggled to match their brilliance since. This is why I am so excited about Lavinia — it is quite possibly the best novel she has ever written and, considering her back list, that is a very big statement indeed.
Her new book is a masterful retelling of Virgil’s The Aeneid, re-imagined from the perspective of Aeneis’ wife, Lavinia. Virgil was broadly dismissive of Lavinia in his epic poem, referring to her directly only twice despite the fact that, like Helen of Troy, an entire war is fought over her. An indication of the lack of respect afforded women in Virgil’s time, no doubt, but Le Guin saw more in the demure Latin princess who, unlike Helen, took control of her own destiny. Lavinia emerges as a determined and courageous leader, in tune with her people and their natural surroundings.
There is so much to admire in this very mature, well rounded novel but I will limit myself to just a couple of things that I loved. The use of Virgil’s ghost, visiting Lavinia from the future to instruct her on her own destiny, was a stroke of meta-storytelling genius. Le Guin also beautifully explores the contrast between Lavinia’s pagan spirituality and the Greco-Roman gods of Aeneis (and Virgil) providing a wonderful insight into an age of religious and political upheaval.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone and everyone, but particularly if you enjoyed other re-workings of classical myths such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon or David Malouf’s recent literary masterpiece, Ransom.