Lavinia - Ursula K. Le Guin image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my LOCUS FANTASY list.

As the Locus Sci-Fi Award winners list treated me so kindly, I figure I’ll trust those same good folk to pick me some stars in their sister-list, the Locus Fantasy Award winners.

Having never read any Le Guin before, I was a little unsure about where to start. I didn’t want to dive straight in with a big series, which ruled out her most celebrated works, the Earthsea Cycle and the Hainish Cycle, and then Lavinia popped up on my radar as the 2009 winner of the Locus Fantasy award. At the time I was working my way through every winner of the Locus Sci-Fi award (and loving it) so I decided to branch and I try a couple of the fantasy winners.

With the clarity of twenty-twenty hindsight, I can say that this probably wasn’t the right Le Guin for me to start with. Underwhelmed is the key word.

I was excited by the concept – taking a classic like The Aeneid as a launch point to tell the story of a key, but underexplored character. Dan Simmons’ Illium is one of my all-time favourites, and the sci-fi twist he puts on the Illiad is mind-blowing so I guess I was hoping for echoes of that here. Comparing these two books is like comparing chalk and cheese but far more extreme, like comparing chalk and cybernetic A.I.

Words that come to mind around Lavinia are “meandering”, “dreamy”, “floaty”, and “gentle”. Reading this book is no thrill-ride. It’s like carefully folding paper boats and setting them to sail on a quietly babbling brook, under the serene glow of a late spring sunset, while the breeze whispers through the droopy willow branches.

I can’t fault the writing – Le Guin is a quality wordsmith with a keen eye for character – but the overall experience just wasn’t my thing. It made me drowsy. Once I’ve started a book I always see it through, because even the most mediocre of tales might have a sting in its tail that makes it worthwhile, but no such luck here. It was like listening to pan-pipe music; inoffensive, but basically dull.

There were some very pretty passages of description, and some dramatic tension did creep in as we went along – but by that point I’d already missed my window to emotionally invest in the outcome. There’s some solid research gone into the world building and it’s all very well constructed and convincing – but it just didn’t move me.

The story revolves around Lavinia’s (harridan) mother pressuring her to marry a local lord (who’s a bit of a psycho), but she knows (through dreams and prophecy) that she will marry a foreigner (Aeneus). Low and behold, Aeneus rocks up, she loves him, and war breaks out with the jilted other blah. There are some nice touches with Lavinia talking direct to the reader, and chatting with the ghost of Virgil, but not enough to stop my eyes sliding off the page.

2 stars – Lavinia is not terrible, but I can’t really recommend it.