Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This retelling of Virgil's Aeneid from Lavina's point of very is blissfully mythic. I prefer ancient world to medieval fantasy, because people in the ancient world experienced life through a mythic mindset, more so than in the middle ages, or so it seems. You could say the Australian aboriginal dreamtime was real, because those people used it to navigate their world, and the mythic world of Vesta, Juno, and Mars was real because the Latins' mental model of the world revolved around them.
Ursula Le Guin really worked at her research, and made pre-Roman Italy come alive through the eyes of Lavina, a king's daughter. When young Lavina gets a message from a dying poet of the future (Virgil), she realizes she is part of an epic fate. Her older, wiser, voice as a narrator comes from not from an old woman, but from her story. This is a story narrated by the story itself.
The reader need not know the epic poem, everything needed by the novel is layered into the tale. The writing is powerful, the story incredible, and the characters both exotic and approachable.
I can see why this won the Locus award for the best fantasy novel of the year.
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Writer's Point of View: This is way too impressive. Choosing to have the story tell itself is such a great concept. While the pacing is slow, it feels prefect for this world where even kings walk from town to town. Since the Aeneid didn't go into detail on Lavina's life, there is plenty of room for tension. Yet the foreshadowing is upfront and inescapable. Lavinia learns of the poem of her life before she becomes part of the poem. Le Guin brings the ancient world to life by illuminating the differences of the pre-Roman Latins with the Greek influenced Virgil. By showing us the rituals used to great the new day. By showing us how sacred a thing fire was in those times. Showing, not telling.
The phrase "associate with your betters" comes to mind when reading such a well crafted book. I can only hope for a little osmosis.