Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bending the Boyne by J. S. Dunn: Interview & Excerpt

Historical Fiction

Circa 2200 BCE: Changes rocking the Continent reach Eire with the dawning Bronze Age. Well before any Celts, marauders invade the island seeking copper and gold. The young astronomer Boann and the enigmatic Cian need all their wits and courage to save their people and their great Boyne mounds, when long bronze knives challenge the peaceful native starwatchers. Banished to far coasts, Cian discovers how to outwit the invaders at their own game. Tensions on Eire between new and old cultures and between Boann, Elcmar, and her son Aengus, ultimately explode. What emerges from the rubble of battle are the legends of Ireland’s beginnings in a totally new light.

Larger than myth, this tale echoes with medieval texts, and cult heroes modern and ancient. By the final temporal twist, factual prehistory is bending into images of leprechauns who guard Eire’s gold for eternity. As ever, the victors will spin the myths.

This story appeals to fans of solid historical fiction, myth and fantasy, archaeo-astronomy, and Bronze Age Europe.

BENDING THE BOYNE draws on 21st century archaeology to show the lasting impact when early metal mining and trade take hold along north Atlantic coasts. Carved megaliths and stunning gold artifacts, from the Pyrenees up to the Boyne, come to life in this researched historical fiction.

...A useful fleshing of the bones
of an interesting archaeological story.
William OBrien, PhD, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland.

...Bang-on with the latest archaeological debates.
Peter Clark, MIFA, Director, The Canterbury Archaeological Trust,
Canterbury, Kent, UK.

Awarded first place, Next Generation Indie Awards 2011 (USA)

Kindle  |  Paperback  |  GoodreadsNook

Bending The Boyne, a novel of ancient Ireland

Seriously Good Books, publisher. ISBN:  9780983155416.
Copyright J.S. Dunn, 2011. All rights reserved.

*  *  *

When the body was found at the next dawning by Starwatchers searching for Sheela, the hideous scene wrote itself indelibly upon their memory. No one had ever done such a deed on their island. They had no word to describe the crime against Sheela. Scouts gathered up her remains tenderly after the elders had seen that place of death.
     At Sheela’s dwelling, Boann waited. She looked up to see Airmid bringing a basket of herbs and soft skins for preparing a body. Airmid shook her head. Her red curls looked out of place in the still and grim space. Gentle Airmid told her, “You shouldn’t do this alone. Let me help.” The body arrived and the two women looked at each other, aghast. The scouts left them reluctantly, one man staying outside the door.
     The women silently set to work. Hands trembling, Boann redressed Sheela’s hair to its state before the murderous attack, after washing it with aromatic water to rid it of the choking smell, the smell of the intruders. Airmid, white-faced, repaired wounds as best she could.
     They chose to dress Sheela in a soft skin tunic bleached in the sun. They added the most delicate overtunic made by Sheela, the knots too fine to be seen at arm’s length. Then the two women wept to see beautiful Sheela lying dead in her garments meant for her wedding.
     The Starwatchers kept the body in the coolness of a small cairn with an honor guard of women and men until the ceremony. After lying in the great eastern mound of Dowth, Sheela’s cremated bones would be interred in one of the smaller mounds to the southeast. The elders delayed the first interment while runners brought the news to other villages, so that as many Starwatchers as possible could attend.
     Hundreds of Starwatchers gathered to mourn. They walked to the Boyne mounds, some traveling for the better part of one sun, and in lowered voices made arrangements to share food and set up shelters. The crowd converged at Dowth mound.
     The horrific deed overshadowed the death itself and skewed the focus of the burial ceremony. The Dagda spoke first in benign phrases about the fragility, the gift, of life.
     “He said nothing of the intruders,” one elder whispered angrily to another.
     Boann spoke briefly. “Remember our friend Sheela. Remember Sheela for her life, her joy, her contributions to our community, and not for her death.”
     Family members were too stricken to speak, and the singers’ chorus was muffled. A cold wind arose and bowed the grass, it shook the young barley, as the people stood together in the wordless shock of what had happened.
     Tadhg hung his head and when he looked up at last, Boann hardly recognized him for the new emotion showing in his eyes: hatred for the intruders.
     Late sunlight glittered on the white quartz around the entrance to the north passage in Dowth. The wrapped, slender form lay upon the grass. The mourners filed past, bereft of flowers to cast down in this early season. Then four young men stepped forward. They locked arms under the body and carried Sheela across the entrance stones and along the narrow passage to the innermost chamber. They tripped on three low stone sills in the dark passage but none cursed or drew a breath. Inside the chamber, the men carefully lowered the body to the flagstone floor. Behind it in an oval stone basin, dried sweet herbs were burning, Boann’s last gift to her friend.
     After the others withdrew, Boann stayed inside the mound, seated, with Sheela’s body. She looked vacantly around this inner chamber. Its ceiling was lintelled and flat rather than corbelled; that was a mark of its earlier construction. Sparse carvings of rayed sun circles, spirals, and chevrons would guide Sheela in the spirit world. Starwatchers treated the body with respect. The sealed mound kept out animals while natural processes cleaned away flesh. The bones would be burned and later arranged in a small cairn nearby. The bones of Sheela’s family who preceded her in death lay in smaller cairns around Dowth, and now Boann served their memory by thinking of each name and reciting their lineage. Other than cousins, the death of Sheela ended her mother’s line.
     Boann remained motionless in the silence of the old starchamber. Sheela must lie here alone and in darkness. This north passage inside Dowth, and its second passage to her left, both faced west where the sun would soon set. She spoke to the spirit of Sheela.
     “You have repose here. The moon visits on its standstill. When the sunset penetrates the darkness of Dowth in winter, then we shall return to honor and remove your bones.”
     She sat, numbed with pain, staring at the great grey stones. She thought of all the mounds built by her people. Carved stones from smaller old mounds at the Boyne had been reused to build newer mounds. The one had been destroyed to build the other, reshaped and renewed. She placed more herbs into the small fire in the bullaun stone. What will come of this death, she asked it.
     Some events were immutable, final, like a flame extinguished. Death appeared to be one of those. The spirit left the body. Was anything truly permanent? Boann pondered the contradiction of the slow shift in the stars.
     If the sky’s dome itself changes, then nothing we Starwatchers know is permanent.

     Anxiety seized her in this sanctuary for their dead. “What is happening to us?” Her cry reverberated against stone.

That’s an unusual title – what is Bending The Boyne about?

Change, and the title is a metaphor for changes. A quick summary of this novel is: an ancient gold rush, and loyalty faces off against greed.

What brought you to write historical fiction, especially setting it in the North Atlantic at 4,000 plus years ago?

You mean, what eejit would spend ten years researching the early Bronze Age in cold, damp Ireland and along north Atlantic coasts!  It helped to be living in Ireland at the time, where I developed a keen interest in the great Boyne passage mounds; what culture built those mounds and why. Why were those enormous, engineered mounds later called elfmounds? That seems like quite a piece of propaganda.

As my research progressed, it became clear that Something Big happened at circa 2500-2200 BCE. Fortunately, many eminent archaeologists of our day agree. Don't you just love it when that happens? The whole paradigm for the Bronze Age is shifting due to new archaeology, linguistics, and genetics findings. This is the first fiction to use the new approach.

The large-scale conflict in this novel is between old and new cultures and it concerns change. How will the native Starwatchers who built the mounds adapt to the incoming marauders who want to exploit Eire's copper and gold.

Parts of the plot follow the myth of Boann and her son Aengus, but the physical setting strives to be factual. That’s another first – this novel of ancient Eire uses no anachronistic swords or chariots, and no fluffy fairy folk or mumbling druids. There is a Who’s Your Daddy? aspect to Boann’s legend and the birth of Aengus that I riffed on to show important differences between the natives and the newcomers. “...They made the sun stand still to the end of nine months / strange the tale...” : from the Dindshenchas. Essentially the myths were deconstructed and retold with the aid of bang-on archaeology

What comparisons do you see between the ancient world and today's world?

This novel contains embedded political references including a quote from Gerry Adams, “Making peace is harder than making war.” Obviously, the situation for northern Ireland remains a problem.

Also, issues of ecology and sustainability come into play. Early mining and smelting left chemical traces, arsenic and other nasty residues, that can be detected today from soil core analysis. Mining is physically destructive. From ancient Cyprus to southern Spain, the land denuded of trees for ancient mining has never recovered. Spain used to be green and covered with a forest, now it’s a desert south of the Pyrenees. That’s just fact and plain to see. Are we going to get it, the lessons visible from the past, and use our environment wisely?

The disruption to Eire’s natives, who did not use metals and who were peaceable for the most part, also has parallels throughout history.

Can you tell us about some of your future writing projects?

Thanks for asking – an excerpt from the second novel has just been accepted for an anthology of historical fiction. The second novel is set around 1600 BCE, another period of great change in the Atlantic Bronze Age.

Who are some authors you feel have influenced you as a writer?

Influences : Robert Harris, Mary Renault, Edward Rutherfurd, Geraldine Brooks, James Michener. And  Jean Auel,  for making the Paleolithic era accessible to the modern reader, which I hope to do for the Bronze Age.

Which do you do more of, writing or research? And how do you relate them to one another?

To write about such a remote era and have it successfully vetted by  academics, I am obsessive about using primary source material whether it’s astronomy, archaeology, paleobotany, or genetics. And, I probably redrafted each chapter in Bending The Boyne at least twenty times.  No doubt the second novel will take several years to finish as well.

Here is an example. An article in a genetics journal concluded that the Irish pygmy shrew came to ancient Eire from northern Spain (and not the UK). So that tidbit prompted an entire new chapter and subplot in the next novel about a fellow who hitches a voyage from Spain disguised as a pack of skins – only to find shrews bothering him at night during the trip!  Solid research adds so much to telling the tale, it cannot be overlooked.

According to your site, you have traveled quite a bit. Where are some of the places you have been, and where are some places you look forward to traveling in the future?

Have explored 5000 year old copper mines in northern Spain ( and the local wines and goat cheeses were excellent), and a small mound on Anglesey off Wales, and the large passage mounds and stone rows of the Morbihan in Brittany, France; to name a few. The megaliths are usually located on high with scenic vistas and can be very moving places to visit, unforgettable.

I really enjoy the travels; rough days hiking around remote sites but staying in good country hotels at night is the way to do it. Also it pays to get a local driver rather than renting a car. The local can find things much faster than the tourist – that is, once they understand my Spanglish, or bad French. The research sets the itinerary.

Living in Ireland was simply a wonderful time altogether and I wouldn’t trade that for anything! The cadence of Irish speech and its verbal feats will linger with anyone who lives there. Being there gave ready access to artifacts and megalith sites, and living in the countryside where people are still attuned to natural rhythms and the seasons; all these influenced the novel.


The reader may find the maps, and the Glossary of names and author’s note, to be useful. The author’s website,, contains reading group questions, and web links to find photos and interesting information about the objects and places depicted in Bending The Boyne.

The Wall page on Facebook has updates, fan comments – join the 3,100+ fans! – and Irish archaeology news : .

More on the new concepts about early “Celts” and the origin of the Gaelic language can be found in Celtic From The West (Cunliffe and Koch, editors, 2010, Oxford Press).

            J. S. Dunn resided in Ireland during the past decade, and from there pursued a keen interest in Bronze Age culture and marine trade along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, France, Wales, and Ireland.

            In 2011, Bending The Boyne won the Next Generation Award for historical fiction. It is listed for a Foreword Book Of  The Year Award, tba June 23, 2012.


2 Winners
Digital copy of book (US only), Print copy of book (International shipping OK)
Ends July 21st

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