Morgan Llywelyn has written dozens of historical novels about Ireland, the Celts, and the Túatha Dé Danann. Her latest, Only the Stones Survive, recounts her version of the legendary Gaelic conquest of the Túatha Dé Danann in ancient Ireland. According to the myths, the Milesians sailed to Ireland and, after fighting a battle, and with the help of the bard Amergin, made peace with the fae folk. They divided up the island so that the Milesians lived atop the land while the Túatha Dé Danann lived in the underworld below.
Told from multiple perspectives, Llywelyn’s tale fills in all the details, explaining some of the customs and powers of the Túatha Dé Danann, why the Milesians came to Ireland, why the peaceful Túatha Dé Danann didn’t fight back so that most of them were killed, how the bard brought an end to the war, why the Túatha Dé Danann ended up living under ground, and why they have rarely been noticed by the people who have inhabited Ireland since these events.
One of the story’s perspective characters is a young man named Joss (later known as Elgolai na Starbird) who is coming of age on the island. He is learning about his people’s language, powers, symbols and rituals when the aggressive Milesians arrive. Then he witnesses many of the brutal events that occur and has a role in saving a remnant of the Túatha Dé Danann. We also see parts of the story from the perspective of a couple of the Milesians and a Phoenician who accompanied them.
This is a story about conquest, loss, betrayal, love, and peace. It should have been full of passion, beauty, longing, horror, sadness, anxiety and regret. Unfortunately, it is not. The characters seem two-dimensional, shallow and aloof, and all of the action is relayed quickly and succinctly as if from a distance. It feels like the story is a series of historical facts to be related for information rather than participation or enjoyment. Only the Stones Survive has all the emotional impact of a textbook. I listened to Tantor Audio’s version which is nine hours long and narrated by Michael Healy. Llwelyn’s short choppy sentences and Healy’s frequently sing-song voice made Only the Stones Survive sound like a chapter in a fourth grade history book. (But this is not marketed to children.)
While I like the idea of an origin myth for the Túatha Dé Danann, Only the Stones Survive is not the one I would recommend. It’s dry, dull, and uninteresting.