Sunday, January 17, 2016

Only the Stones Survive - Morgan Llywelyn

Only the Stones Survive is the latest  historical fantasy by Irish-American author Morgan Llywelyn. I received a review copy from the people at Tor. This book is the first I have read by Llywelyn. She's had a long backlist of historical, mythological and fantastical novels, most dealing on some level with Celtic Ireland. This novel is no exception. It is a pretty straightforward retelling of a set myths dealing with the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland. Unless I am very much mistaken, it is mostly inspired by The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn in Irish), which collects a number of pseudo-historical poems and stories about the early history of Ireland. The first written records of these stories date from the eleventh century but one can safely assume the tales themselves are older. A lot of what you will find in this book has in some shape or form been included in numerous fantasy novels as well as historical works. It makes Llywelyn's rendition instantly recognizable for a lot of readers.

Driven by hardship in their native Galicia, the sons of Milesios take their tribe to sea in search of a new homeland. They invade Ireland and meet the Tuatha Dé Danann, themselves invaders of an earlier age. The Tuatha Dé Danann are long-lived and careful to live in harmony with the island. Their magic is strong but they are reluctant to use it. They see the Gael as loud and barbaric but their magic and bronze arms are no match for the cold iron of the Gaels. A new era in the history of the island is dawning.

The story is told in two main strands. The first is narrated in the first person by Joss, a young boy of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is on the verge of adulthood when the Gael arrive and makes the transition in a time of war and hardship. While he watches his people being slaughtered, he is looking for a way to save a remnant of what they were. The second strand is a multiple point of view third person narrative. We see this part of the story through the eyes of the invaders. Besides being terrified of the magic of the island, the invaders are also being torn by internal conflicts. Theirs is a race of warriors, and they turn on themselves just as easily as on the natives.

The author draws a sharp contrast between the two parties. One a people living in such close harmony with the island, that their disappearance causes environmental changes. The other a people looking to exploit its resources to gain wealth. It's interesting to consider that the Celtic Druidic culture that would rise on the island is usually thought to be tied to the land in ways similar to what Llywelyn uses for the Tuatha Dé Danann in this novel. It must be said that she gives a hint of how this comes to be in the final chapters of the novel though.

Like its source material, most of the novel is mythical, a number of existing locations are used. Most of them are located in the Boyne valley. Llywelyn mentions the origins of the hill of Tara as the seat of the Irish High Kings. The megalithic monuments of  Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, already ancient by the time the Tuatha Dé Danann arrive on the island, play an important part in the story. These locations are quite real and described in vivid detail. I also suspect the cave system mentioned in the book is an existing one but I haven't been able to identify it. Suffice to say Llywelyn knows a thing or two about the island and uses it to ground the story in the real world.

The story itself will not surprise many readers. Once I became aware of the mythological sources of the novel I more or less approached the novel as I would an Arthurian tale. The conclusion is inevitable, it's how you get there that counts. Llywelyn more or less forces the reader to take this approach to the novel by opening with a scene of the battle in which the Tuatha Dé Danann are thoroughly destroyed. It is clear from the outset, even for the reader not familiar with the source material, that this book is going to be a tragedy.

I must admit I didn't think Only the Stones Survive was the most inspired bit of writing I've ever come across. Llywelyn dutifully follows the myths and delivers a tragic tale of the rise of one culture and the fading away of another. The characters never evolved beyond archetypes though. For this book to be a truly enjoyable read for me, the author should have succeeded in making me forget the various roles the characters play in this tragedy and make me care for them as individuals rather than a representation of their respective peoples. In that aspect the novel fails. In a few places it is a dry read.

I enjoyed reading Only the Stones Survive at some level. Llywelyn delivers a clear story of a bit of pseudo-history that is the foundation of a lot of modern fantasy. She also manages to firmly anchor it in the real world, with the many references to existing locations. That being said, the author's firm grasp of the source material doesn't really make up for the lack of characterization. With the shape of the story largely known and the outcome inevitable, the novel would have been a lot better if Llywelyn had managed to evolve her characters beyond the archetype. As it is, the novel is interesting for fans of the author and people with an interest in Celtic mythology. It is not the book Llywelyn will be remembered for though.

Book Details
Title: Only the Stones Survive
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 232
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3654-9
First published: 2016

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