Only the Stones Survive: Has the emotional impact of a textbook

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOnly the Stones Survive by Morgan Llywelyn historical fantasy book reviewsOnly the Stones Survive by Morgan Llywelyn

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOne 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.

Published on January 5, 2016. For centuries the Túatha Dé Danann lived in peace on an island where time flowed more slowly and the seasons were gentle–until that peace was shattered by the arrival of invaders. The Gaels, the Children of Milesios, came looking for easy riches and conquest, following the story of an island to the west where their every desire could be granted. They had not anticipated that it would already be home to others, and against the advice of their druids, they begin to exterminate the Túatha Dé Danann. After a happy and innocent childhood, Joss was on the cusp of becoming a man when the Gaels slaughtered the kings and queens of the Túatha Dé Danann. Left without a mother and father, he must find a way to unite what is left of his people and lead them into hiding. But even broken and scattered, Joss and his people are not without strange powers. Morgan Llywelyn weaves Irish mythology, historical elements, and ancient places in the Irish landscape to create a riveting tale of migration, loss, and transformation in Only the Stones Survive.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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6 comments

  1. I almost didn’t read the review because I thought your sub-heading said it all. What a shame! Such an interesting topic.

    Have you read other books of hers you liked better?

    • Yes, I read THE GREENER SHORE: https://fantasyliterature.com/reviews/the-greener-shore/

      She obviously has a passion for this subject.

    • Maitiu /

      It’s actually quite a good book. Morgan Llyewlyn writes mainstream historical fiction. The story which takes up where ‘BARD’, her brilliant retelling and re-imagining of the Old Irish text ‘The Book of the Invasions of Ireland’ (‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’) , leaves off. I recommend you read BARD first. It’s obvious that Morgan did her research, reading the original texts and secondary materials. She has a scholar’s very fine grasp of Irish mythology in the broader context of Celtic Paganism. Far from the characters being two dimensional, Morgan’s language actually captures the sparseness of beauty of the the early tales. Bringing to life the origin tales of the Milesians and the mythical Túatha De Dannan, as only a historical fiction can. And Morgan Llywelyn is a scholar/poet master of the genre.

      I recommend the book. But read BARD first. Also worth reading are:
      – RED BRANCH <– A wonderful retelling of the Old Irish epic 'TÁÍN BÓ CUAILNGE'
      – DRUIDS <— We have Caesar's account of the Roman conquest of Gaul, 'de BELLO GALLICO. This is an account from the Gaulish side, through the eyes of Ainvar, Chief Druid of the Carnutes. Powerful. A worthwhile read!
      – THE GREENER SHORE – is the long anticipated sequel to DRUIDS.
      – FINN McCOOL

  2. Darn! I was really hoping this one would be good. I’ll try The Greener Shore, instead.

  3. Kevin Wei /

    Topic sounds cool, but not so much the storytelling. I have to admit that Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles have really gotten me interested in Irish mythology…The Greener Shore is going on my to read list :)

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