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From a masterful writer of myth and fantasy, a beautiful reimagining of one of the most pivotal characters in Virgil's Aeneid

As the story goes, Virgil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to build 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. Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom until her suitors arrive. Her ...

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From a masterful writer of myth and fantasy, a beautiful reimagining of one of the most pivotal characters in Virgil's Aeneid

As the story goes, Virgil’s hero fights to claim the king’s daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to build 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. Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom until her suitors arrive. Her mother wants her to marry 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. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands and tells us the story of her life—and her life's greatest love.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"She never loses touch with her reverence for the immense what is."—Margaret Atwood

"Like all great writers of fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin creates imaginary worlds that restore us, hearts eased, to our own."—Boston Globe

'There is no writer with an imagination as forceful and delicate as Le Guin's."—Grace Paley

Eve Ottenberg
[Le Guin] focuses this engaging novel on Aeneas's Latin wife, who is only sketchily depicted in the epic poem. In simple, stately prose that does no violence to Vergil's work, Le Guin presents the rough, unpretentious dignity of the ancient pagans. She also portrays daily life in the Bronze Age, some time after the 13th century B.C., when duty and responsibility glue the community together…there is plenty of action in Lavinia. Even her happy marriage is filled with musings cleverly ancient yet modern—most compellingly on the expectations of women. By telling this story from its heroine's clear, forthright perspective, Le Guin has taken the cipher that is Vergil's Lavinia and given her a new life.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In the Aeneid, the only notable lines Virgil devotes to Aeneas' second wife, Lavinia, concern an omen: the day before Aeneus lands in Latinum, Lavinia's hair is veiled by a ghost fire, presaging war. Le Guin's masterful novel gives a voice to Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus and Queen Amata, who rule Latinum in the era before the founding of Rome. Amata lost her sons to a childhood sickness and has since become slightly mad. She is fixated on marrying Lavinia to Amata's nephew, Turnus, the king of neighboring Rutuli. It's a good match, and Turnus is handsome, but Lavinia is reluctant. Following the words of an oracle, King Latinus announces that Lavinia will marry Aeneas, a newly landed stranger from Troy; the news provokes Amata, the farmers of Latinum, and Turnus, who starts a civil war. Le Guin is famous for creating alternative worlds (as in Left Hand of Darkness), and she approaches Lavinia's world, from which Western civilization took its course, as unique and strange as any fantasy. It's a novel that deserves to be ranked with Robert Graves's I, Claudius. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School- This novel takes a minor character from Vergil's Aeneid and creates a thoughtful, moving tale of prophecy, myth, and self-fulfillment. Lavinia is the teen princess of Latium, a small but important kingdom in pre-Roman Italy. As she moves into womanhood, she feels pressure from her parents to choose one of her many suitors as both her husband and the future ruler of the kingdom. But the oracles of the sacred springs say she will marry an unknown foreigner. This stranger is none other than Vergil's Aeneus, proud hero, king without a country, and the man who will lay down the foundations of the Roman Empire. Their marriage sparks a war to control the region; while readers don't see the glorious battles, they do get the surprisingly moving perspective of the home front through Lavinia's eyes. Best known for her works of fantasy, Le Guin takes a more historical approach here by toning down the magical elements; gods and prophecies have a vital role in the protagonist's life, but they are presented as concepts and rituals, not as deities playing petty games with the lives of mortals. This shifts the focus of Vergil's plot from action to character, allowing Le Guin to breathe life into a character who never utters a word in the original story. Lavinia is quite compelling as she transforms from a spirited princess into a queen full of wisdom who makes a profound impact on her people. The author's language and style are complex, making this a title for sophisticated teens.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA

Kirkus Reviews
Le Guin (Powers, 2007, etc.) departs from her award-winning fantasy and science-fiction novels to amplify a story told only glancingly in Virgil's epic The Aeneid. The story is that of the eponymous princess of Latium (a royal city before Rome existed), promised by her parents, King Latinus and Queen Amata, to neighboring Rutilian king Turnus (who is Amata's nephew). But omens decree otherwise, and Lavinia weds Trojan warrior-adventurer Aeneas, a bereaved and conflicted husband, son and father who will, over the years, earn the initially reluctant Lavinia's undying respect and love. Though this unlikely heroine receives only token mention in Virgil's original, Le Guin brings her to vibrant life as a dutiful virgin whose world is circumscribed by daily routines; who is the uncooperative cynosure of several suitors' eyes; and who eventually distances herself from the misrule of her stepson Ascanius (Aeneas's successor), biding her time until the new metropolis of Rome is made worthy of its intrepid founder. Lavinia's inner strength emerges in dreamlike "conversations" with the poet who created her, and in her intuitive understanding of her father's just rule, her husband's justifiable ambitions and her own unending obligations. Le Guin has researched this ancient world assiduously, and her measured, understated prose captures with equal skill the permutations of established ritual and ceremony and the sensations of the battlefield ("The snarling trumpets rang out again. A group of horsemen far out in the fields moved forward in a solid mass like a shadow across the ripening crops . . . through the hot slanting light full of dust"). Arguably her best novel, and an altogether worthy companionvolume to one of the Western world's greatest stories.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Ursula K. Le Guin channeling Frank Miller? The poet of the bucolic utopia portrayed in Always Coming Home echoing the macho war cries of 300? The sensitive chronicler of the hermaphroditic culture of The Left Hand of Darkness engaging in the rough-and-tumble brawling characteristic of Sin City? Well, yes and no, but perhaps more yes than no.

Despite any clichéd misperceptions about her feminism and pacifism, Le Guin has always been a remarkably tough-minded writer, fully cognizant of the misunderstanding, contention, and violence that ineluctably characterize human interactions. Although much of her work argues for and postulates alternate and saner modalities of person-to-person and government-to-person relations, she has never been blind to the realities of power, nor hesitant to depict warfare and its consequences. For instance, her latest young-adult trilogy, Annals of the Western Shore, resounds with the impact of strife. Where she and a writer like Miller differ, of course, is on the necessity, glory, utility, and ultimately the morality of organized combat.

But the setting and characters of Le Guin's Lavinia dictate that she deal with warfare in her most concentrated and vivid manner to date. And while her ultimate stance on violence remains basically and explicitly unchanged from her career-long conclusions on the subject, she nonetheless inhabits the martial milieu of her novel so wholeheartedly that she is swept up in the bloody colors of its spectacle and carries the reader headlong with her.

It was very beautiful, the bristling glitter of lance heads far off there, moving quickly and nearer. The air was shaken with the thrilling drum of the feet of horses at the gallop. All along the lines of men drawn up in front of the city, spears and lances reared up into the sunlight, and horses began to whinny and shift and fight the reins. Then the Etruscan horns and trumpets sounded their battle signals, some deep and hoarse, some silvery sweet.
Lavinia takes up the matter of Vergil's Aeneid, the final six books of that epic anyway, and its quintessential Bronze Age heroics. In Vergil's masterpiece, the character of Lavinia -- young Italian wife to the displaced Trojan Aeneas, a hardened warrior twice her age -- receives the sketchiest of treatments, despite being central to the events surrounding Aeneas' attempt to found his new home in a strange land that greets him with resistance. Intrigued by this pivotal cipher, Le Guin embarks on her holistic portrait, worked out through three separated but carefully linked sections.

The first 100 pages or so follow Lavinia from childhood until her 18th year, when Aeneas lands on the shores of her father's kingdom. With both her gender and her royal status acting as psychic fetters, Lavinia receives little guidance from her crazed mother, Amata, while her loving and regal father, Latinus, proves surprisingly ineffectual. Both education and pleasure come largely through woodland frolics with a friend, the daughter of a herder. It is in this section that Le Guin introduces and makes real the main conceit of her narrative. At a sacred site, Lavinia undergoes a set of mystic conversations with the shade, or shade-to-come, of Vergil himself. He instructs her in her mythic status and the course of her future, leaving her with a feeling of "contingency," a sense that she is to some degree a fictional personage rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. She becomes the essence of poetry -- or a poet's vision -- much in the manner that the protagonist of John Crowley's Engine Summer became literally the telling of his own story. Despite this heavy knowledge, Lavinia manages eventually to feel a personal immediacy and spontaneity to her life.

It takes roughly the next 100 pages to cover the short-term tumult surrounding the intrusion of Aeneas and his people into the lives of the Latins, especially regarding his desire to marry Lavinia in the face of her local princely swain, Turnus. Much detailed plotting and conspiring result in open warfare, which ends with Aeneas triumphant and wedded to Lavinia. And there the tale as we have it from Vergil concludes.

Le Guin continues beyond that climax for the final third of her book, painting the married life of Aeneas and Lavinia, her widowhood and dissension with her stepson Ascanius, and her eventual old age unto her very deathbed. And it's through this extension of the story that Le Guin succeeds in fleshing out a mythic icon and those around her in fully human dimensions. Lavinia is revealed as neither an Amazon warrior nor a timorous naif, but rather as a thoughtful woman of above-average character who has to urge and push herself to respond to crises and generally ends up doing the wisest and kindest thing. Aeneas, by contrast, gets less of a rounding-out (of course, he's already had his own book). Lavinia's hapless parents are drawn memorably, echoing at points Lord Sepulchrave and Countess Gertrude from Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan.

With its counter-epic focus, it's no surprise that Lavinia recreates a vanished historical period with a meticulous, novelistic emphasis on quotidian details. The reader gets an intimate sense of the daily life of the era, from its superstitions to its domestic comforts. Explaining her sources and methods in an Afterword, Le Guin describes how she abandoned the "Augustan magnificence" of Vergil for "a more plausible poverty." As in Richard Adams's Watership Down, a compact geographical canvas is made to play host to enormous doings out of all proportion to the tiny landscape. And it's equally satisfying to dive into the spooky non-modern mentality conjured up by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

Perhaps the most immediately resonant aspect of the novel, however, is the author's meditation on warfare and power, the virtues and defects of leaders, which, just like Miller's 300, cannot help but be interpreted as an allegory on modern politics. We inevitably ponder current wars when we encounter a passage like this one:

Almost every household in Latium grieved for a father or brother or son killed or crippled. I think one cannot be left alive among so many deaths without feeling unendurable shame. They say Mars absolves the warrior from the crimes of war, but those who were not the warriors, those for whom the war was said to be fought, even though they never wanted it to be fought, who absolves them?
Le Guin's tale suffers from a few innate stumbling blocks. Because Lavinia is not present at important battles and meetings, crucial action is sometimes recounted secondhand and after the fact. And cramming some 50 years of living into the compass of 300 pages necessitates a few rushed, compressed sections where Lavinia is made to dump a mass of condensed information on the reader.

But these minor infelicities fade away like the wraith of Vergil when one considers how much sheer poetry and empathetic insight Le Guin has packed into this book. At the end of her life, Lavinia becomes aware of her own immortality -- a moment that feels no less moving even if her legacy is contained by the boundaries of this stirring novel. --Paul DiFilippo

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul DiFilippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156033688
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/10/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 286,947
  • Lexile: 960L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Ursula K.  Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. Over the course of her career she has published more than sixty books of fiction, fantasy, science fiction, children’s literature, poetry, drama, criticism, and translation, and is the multiple winner of the highest awards in several fields. Among her honors are a National Book Award, a PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction, five Hugo and five Nebula Awards, twenty-one Locus Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.


Speculative fiction, magic realism, "slipstream" fiction -- all these terms could apply to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Unfortunately, none was in common use when she started writing in the early 1960s. As a young writer, Le Guin weathered seven years of rejections from editors who praised her novels' elegant prose but were puzzled by their content. At a time when the only literary fiction was realistic fiction, as Le Guin later told an interviewer for The Register-Guard in Portland, Oregon, "There just wasn't a pigeonhole for what I write."

At long last, two of her stories were accepted for publication, one at a literary journal and one at a science-fiction magazine. The literary journal paid her in copies of the journal; the science-fiction magazine paid $30. She told The Register-Guard, "I thought: 'Oooohhh! They'll call what I write science fiction, will they? And they'll pay me for it? Well, here we go!' "

Le Guin continued to write and publish stories, but her breakthrough success came with the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. The novel, which tells of a human ambassador's encounters with the gender-changing inhabitants of a distant planet, was unusual for science fiction in that it owed more to anthropology and sociology than to the hard sciences of physics or biology. The book was lauded for its intellectual and psychological depth, as well as for its fascinating premise. "What got to me was the quality of the story-telling," wrote Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. "She's taken the mythology, psychology -- the entire creative surround -- and woven it into a jewel of a story."

Since then, Le Guin has published many novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, essays, translations, and children's books. She's won an arm's-length list of awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore. Over the years, she has created and sustained two fictional universes, populating each with dozens of characters and stories. The first universe, Ekumen, more or less fits into the science-fiction mode, with its aliens and interplanetary travel; the second, Earthsea, is a fantasy world, complete with wizards and dragons. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The New York Review of Books, "Either one would have been sufficient to establish Le Guin's reputation as a mistress of its genre; both together make one suspect that the writer has the benefit of arcane drugs or creative double-jointedness or ambidexterity."

More impressive still is the way Le Guin's books have garnered such tremendous crossover appeal. Unlike many writers of science fiction, she is regularly reviewed in mainstream publications, where her work has been praised by the likes of John Updike and Harold Bloom. But then, Le Guin has never fit comfortably into a single genre. As she said in a Science Fiction Weekly interview, "I know that I'm always called 'the sci-fi writer.' Everybody wants to stick me into that one box, while I really live in several boxes. It's probably hurt the sales of my realistic books like Searoad, because it tended to get stuck into science fiction, where browsing readers that didn't read science fiction would never see it."

Le Guin has also published a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a book that has influenced her life and writing since she was a teenager; she has translated fiction by Angelica Gorodischer and a volume of poems by Gabriela Mistral; and, perhaps most gratifyingly for her fans, she has returned to the imaginary realm of Earthsea. Tehanu, which appeared in 1990, was subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," but Le Guin found she had more to tell, and she continued with Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. "I thought after 'Tehanu' the story was finished, but I was wrong," she told Salon interviewer Faith L. Justice. "I've learned never to say 'never.' "

Good To Know

The "K" in Ursula K. Le Guin stands for Le Guin's maiden name, Kroeber. Her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber; her mother, the writer Theodora Kroeber, is best known for the biography Ishi in Two Worlds.

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    1. Hometown:
      Portland, Oregon
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 21, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Berkeley, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
    2. Website:

Customer Reviews

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Lavinia Intrigues

    I probably would never have heard of this book if I had not come across a list of four books for people who are interested in Rome and its history. I love Rome and have been there 13 times so I decided why not!?
    The book is about Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas from "The Aeneid." She is barely mentioned in that book so Ursula K. Le Guin decided to write a novel giving Lavinia some life and background. This book is listed as the second one to read in the four--"Roma" by Steven Saylor, "Lavinia," "The Aeneid" by Virgil, and "The Secrets of Rome (Love and Death in the Eternal City)" by Corrado Augias.
    I must also admit that the series of books intrigued me because I had read part of "The Aeneid" in my fourth year Latin class in high school. I had always intended to read the whole book in English and had long owned a copy of it.
    I must say I enjoyed this book and would recommend it on its own merits even if the reader did not intend to read all four books. I found it interesting and fun. I liked the idea that Lavinia meets/dreams Virgil when she visited the sacred grove of her family and learns about what he is writing. It seemed an original idea to me.
    Since I have now read through Book 9 of "The Aeneid," I have run into information about several of the characters in "Lavinia," though the heroine herself has so far only been mentioned as the unnamed daughter of the Latin King. Several of the events mentioned in "The Aeneid" were fleshed out with added interest by Le Guin.
    As I said I enjoyed this book and also would recommend "Roma" as a fun view of Rome's history starting in !000 BC. I am also enjoying "The Aeneid" though I have to admit I searched the Internet and found a prose translation rather than deal with worrying about end-line punctuation. And every once in a while all the names get to me, and I take a break by reading a mystery or two. The four books make up a project I am most certainly happy to have chosen!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 13, 2011

    Wonderfully written - highly recommend for those interested in ancient history

    The Aeneid retold from a different perspective. Ancient history is a favorite topic of mine. I really enjoy Roman history in particular. When I came across this book, I was so pleasantly surprised! In the past, I have looked for fictitious novels set around this time period and have been disappointed in the selection. Usually I find the only books written around this time period with female main characters are cheesy romance novels...the type of books I am not interested in. However, Lavinia was a breath of fresh air. The book is based around a character from Virgil's Aeneid who did not have much of a voice in his epic tale. I read the Aeneid and was not disappointed one bit by Lavinia. Ursula K. Le Guin does a brilliant job in retelling Virgil's story from Lavinia's perspective. If you are someone who is interested in ancient history and want a book that is not some cheesy romance novel, I highly recommend Lavinia. This book will definitely remain a keeper among the other books I have read and will probably be read again in the future!

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  • Posted March 5, 2010

    Countering aggression with compassion

    Other than Odds Bodkin's entertainingly abridged and bardic retelling of Homer's Odyssey, I've never much cared for the excessive machismo of such ancient tales. Vergil's Aeneas is balanced by Lavinia, a minor character transformed into a sublime heroine, as only LeGuin can do. Some battle gore inevitably remains, but always couched within the larger human enterprise of raising a child, directing a household, and, when necessary, countering aggression with compassion.

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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    An amazing retelling of a few lines from The Aeneid

    Anyone who knows Virgil's The Aeneid will either love or hate Le Guin's retelling of the life of Lavinia as it intersects Aeneas's story. Le Guin, as always presents a tale replete with layers of conflict and underlying social commentary. Some of the most obvious is the masculine and feminine roles, the duties of a ruler to her/his people, the view of women as property and powerless, the tragedies of war, and, oddly, the inner conflict of homosexuals in a heterosexually dominated culture. Whether these elements will be endearing to lovers of Virgil's story, or if this will be seen as a good edition to the overall telling of Aeneas's tale is left to be seen.

    However, for those not caught up in this as an extension of Virgil, the story actually has legs of its own. Many reviewers have said that it's not one of Le Guin's best, but I beg to differ. The same was said about C.S. Lewis's retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Til We Have Faces, although Lewis is quoted as having considered it his greatest work, and I feel much the same way about this novel. It takes a lot of work and effort to get the history correct, and not only that, but Le Guin spends great lengths describing everything about the culture and time period-clothes, food, rituals, architecture, gender interplay, landscape, and much more-so that the reader can imagine every last detail of each scene. The early Latin culture becomes illuminated so that the story itself can live in an accurately detailed world.

    My guess is that since there is no magic in this story, outside of some prophesies and allusions to the intervention of the gods, people who love Le Guin's usual writing couldn't quite get into this one. However, I believe that it will stand the test of time as one of her greatest works, and hopefully it will be seen as an addition to Virgil's great epic. Le Guin herself reveals her love for The Aeneid in the afterword, pining after the days when people were still taught Latin as part of their education, so that they could be enriched by the words of Virgil. She insists that people will not be able to understand the full beauty and magnitude of the work unless they read it in the original Latin.

    -Lindsey Miller,

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