Sunday, 1 December 2013

Rob Reviews Bending the Boyne by JS Dunn

Bending the Boyne begins in a Dublin museum; amid exhibits of copper daggers, a docent delivers a lecture on the coming of the bronze age to ancient Ireland. For generations a small population of stone age farmers in Eire have watched the heavens, recording the movements of sun, moon and stars so as to know exactly when to plant their crops and to accurately predict events such as solar eclipses; near supernatural events to non-astronomical peoples. To achieve this they have built hugely impressive stone structures such as Newgrange and Knowth near the River Boyne; an earthly river, mirrored in the heavens in the stream of stars that is the Milky Way. Although these people live on the edge of the world they have always had cultural links across the seas to the large island to the east and to sea faring peoples around the Bay of Biscay to the south, but change is now coming. Across the seas the invaders came. Instead of flint tools they carry copper axes and bronze swords. They bring their own gods and a new way of trading with the new concept of debt with a heavy price for defaulters to pay in either bonded service or blood. They live in fortified camps and introduce horses to Eire.
The story centres on the Starwatchers struggling to cling to their ways; in particular Boann, daughter of the master stone carver Oghma and Cian, Oghma’s apprentice. The young stone carver and astronomer can see that the Starwatchers must change or lose everything. To that end he elects to live with the Invaders and learn their warrior ways, much to the disgust of the Starwatcher elders and the disappointment of Boann who he was expected to marry. The invaders are driven by a lust for gold and are suspicious, yet covetous, of the Starwatchers’ calendar and rituals. The uneasy toleration between the two peoples starts to break down; Boann narrowly escapes an assault by Connor, the Ard Ri (High King) of the Invaders. Sheela, Boann’s best friend, is not so lucky. She is murdered in an attempted rape by Connor, who is badly wounded by her in the process. Boann, an accomplished astronomer and healer is called to help the stricken champion who is fevered and at death's door. Boann treats his fever while recognising his distinctive smell and Sheela’s tooth marks on his stricken hand. Connor loses his hand and a new Ard Ri is appointed, an ambitious invader called Elcmar. Connor takes some followers and leaves the Boyne to establish a settlement in the north of the island. Elcmar is eager to make all Eire his domain and establish himself beyond the shadow of Taranis, the Overlord of the Invaders, who controls all the seaborne trade in metals from his base in the Loire estuary. To establish an uneasy truce on the Boyne, Elcmar demands Boann in marriage both to her and Cian’s horror. Elcmar knows of the love between Boann and Cian and so soon after the marriage, Elcmar takes the young Starwatcher on a seaborne expedition to his copper mines in modern Kilarney. There Cian meets Gebann, a bonded Seafarer smith from the Iberian peninsula, working for Elcmar to pay off his debt to the Invaders. Elcmar suspects Gebann of knowing where gold can be found in Eire and keeps the smith’s daughter as a hostage. Elcmar tricks Cian into taking to sea again with Gebann, supposedly to return to the Boyne but in reality sent far over the sea to the Seafarer’s lands. Meanwhile Elcmar returns overland to the Boyne, hunting for gold on the way. He returns to find his son Aengus has been born, but the truce between Invader and Starwatcher, like his marriage to Boann, is barely holding together. While Elcmar strives to bring all Eire under his dominion Cian befriends Gebann and learns of smelting, Seafarer astronomy, trade, and the bloody excesses of the Invaders. If he can source the gold in Eire, from under Elcmar’s nose, and develop the trade roots himself, he may just be able to save his people.
The author JS Dunn has done a sterling work in dramatizing a period on the far reaches of our knowledge. He brings some of the latest archaeological theories and recent discoveries about this fascinating period and mixes it all with Irish mythology into his novel. Genetic research has long held that there was link between peoples of the Atlantic seaboard which previously was thought to be because of a genetic bottleneck caused by the Ice Age. However, new research in 2010 indicated strong genetic markers linking Basques with Irishmen with Gaelic surnames, suggesting an intermingling 12,000 years later. This also raises the question as to whether Celtic culture began in the West rather than in Central Europe and much earlier than the Iron Age. There are clear parallels made between the Starwatchers’ struggle and that of their descendants in their fight for independence. Instead of smuggled guns for the Easter Rising of 1916 we have smuggled copper and bronze weapons.
The author’s research continues into the complexities of the smelting process and the location of different ores along the sea faring trade routes and the subsequent negative environmental impact such processes would have, on societies that are subsistence farmers and hunters. Other actual events are hinted at as well, perhaps a climate changing volcanic disaster. It is known that around this period there was a severe drought that brought low the Upper Nile Kingdom and Akkadian Empire. But whereas these civilisations had the benefit of later classical writers to record such events, Irish mythology is based on thousands of years of oral tradition, prior to being set to paper. Hence the names and actions of the characters in this book are taken freely from this mythology of gods and heroes, skilfully made real, and woven into the fabric of this novel. Years ago I attempted to read Irish mythology but found it confusing with so many, seemingly, unrelated characters and their different tales. After reading this book I feel compelled to explore Irish mythology again with different eyes. I also find myself possessing of an urge to see the magnificent Newgrange; Bending the Boyne.
Whilst living and working in Ireland JS Dunn developed a keen interest in early Bronze Age culture and the marine trade along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, France, Wales and Ireland. The author is an attorney, holds a masters degree in psychology,and has been published in these fields. Bending the Boyne is published by Seriously Good Books.

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This review was written by Rob Bayliss. Rob is currently working on his Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow fantasy series. If you would like Rob or any of The Review Team to review your book check out the submissions tab.


  1. Great review Rob. Well done for your first Team one!

  2. Fabulous and I know this history well and look forward to reading this novel.

  3. I knew little of this period prior to doing some research after reading this book. It's good to put NW Europe into the context of rising Bronze age cultures in the Med. Bending the Boyne is a fascinating novel.

  4. This review has opened my eyes, I now feel that it is a book that I need to read. I'll juggle my TBR list and place this one on the top. Great review.

  5. I have to read this book, it sounds fascinating. Tremendous review