Paul Di Filippo reviews Morgan Llywelyn

Only the Stones Survive, by Morgan Llywelyn (Tor/Forge 978-0765337924, $25.99, 304pp, hardcover) January 2016

Have I ever discussed the “Ronald Firbank Test” with you? It’s a very rough-hewn, dubious, but possibly still useful internet metric of my own devising.

Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was a cult writer, a fellow of limited but intense appeal whose mannered, fey works were often brilliant, hilarious and sometimes fantastical. Nonetheless, whatever his merits, his readership and profile nowadays are minimal—just as they were in his own lifetime.

When I googled his name just now, in quotation marks of course, I got roughly 40,000 hits.

To me, that’s the benchmark for authorial obscurity. Below One Firbank Unit is really obscure; any higher numbers advance by stages to One Stephen King Unit (twenty-four-million hits). And this test does not, I believe, reflect only a tendency toward internet self-promotion, as the reclusive Thomas Pynchon earns over half-a-million hits.

I myself hover around 110,000 hits. Wow, almost Three Firbank Units!

Morgan Llywelyn’s name, submitted just now, brought up only 70,000 links, not even Two Firbank Units.

That seems to me a distinct undervaluation for someone who’s been writing fine, well-received, much-admired novels since 1978.

But such is the fickleness and unfairness of public attention, which should not divert us from enjoyment of her newest, which she delivers at the top of her game as she approaches her eightieth year.

Only the Stones Survives is a melancholy, elegiac yet ultimately life-affirming tale, written with bardic simplicity, clarity and elegance. It concerns a pivotal era of change, the moment when the more-than-human Túatha Dé Danann (whose origins here are quasi-SF, cited as “from beyond the stars,” reminiscent of Zenna Henderson’s “the People”), long-settled peaceful inhabitants of the mystical island of Ierne, are driven to the brink of extinction by the invading Children of Milesios, who are a warlike race self-exiled from Iberia due to climactic and environmental issues which Llywelyn parses in a sophisticated manner akin to the famous anthropological researches of Jared Diamond.

Our viewpoint characters are numerous, with the sole, and thus privileged, first-person narration being given over to one of the islanders, Joss, son of the leader of the Túatha Dé Danann. Other potent points-of-view inhere in the primary general of the Milesians, Éremón; his brother, the bard Amerigen; a Phoenician servant, Sakkar; and the young Túatha Dé Danann woman Shinann, who is miraculous and odd even for this weird clan.

By following Joss’s life from earliest days, before the invasion, we get a sense of the blessed, fairylike existence of the Túatha Dé Danann. Joss’s unwilling accommodations to the new days of brutality will provide the bridge from one era to the other. Of course, as readers we naturally sympathize with the natives, whose reluctance to employ all the most deadly weapons at their command, lest they become as horrible as their enemies, is what dooms them. The eternal debate between pacifism and aggression gets a fresh airing. But Llywelyn won’t allow us any simplistic allegiances or empathy. Her in-depth, sympathetic portraiture of the Milesians, who are hardly a homogenous set of characters, forces us to consider the inherent virtues and vices on both sides of the battle lines. She even adds topicality to the plight of the invaders when she refers to them as “refugees,” a loaded label in our day and age.

Llywelyn succeeds in invoking the glamour and mystery of pre-history in a manner patented by, of all people, Robert E. Howard. You’ll see a type of overweening, less ethical Conan in the person of Éremón. And then her somewhat Tolkienesque stylings will delightfully intervene, to summon up misty, mythical eras that preceded our human times. The rousing opening section of Chapter Sixteen, when the very land and creatures of Ierne come to the aid of the Children of Light, might have been found on the pages of LOTR.

Although the rough rudiments of the near-extinction of the Túatha Dé Danann might be foreknown to the reader from previous exploration of these myths, Llywelyn succeeds in keeping the twists and turns along that familiar route utterly surprising. Her particularization of the personages involved, the strategies and outcomes of battle, the motivations and doubts of the participants, all conduce toward an utterly fresh treatment of this ancient material. And her climax, the hybrid solution to all the competition, is brilliant and highly emblematic.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed the works of Evangeline Walton, Andre Norton, Thomas Burnett Swann or T. H. White would be well-repaid to pick up this charming book, deceptively simple, yet cosmically rich, by turns meditative and brawling, accepting of fate and rebellious against destiny.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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