Fantasy Literary Fiction

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom – John Boyne

18 August 2020
A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom Book Cover A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom
John Boyne
Literary Fiction, Fantasy
Double Day Books
23 July 2020

Some stories are universal. They play out across human history. And time is the river which will flow through them. For now this is a family story and this family is is a father, mother and two sons. One with his father's violence in his blood. One who lives his mother's artistry. One leaves. One stays. They will be joined by others whose deeds will change their fate. It is a beginning. Their stories will intertwine and evolve over the course of two thousand years - they will meet again and again at different times and in different places. From distant Palestine at the dawn of the first millennium to modern day American and beyond. While the world mutates around them, their destinies will remain the same. And fulfilling a destiny may take lifetimes... A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is the extraordinary new novel from acclaimed writer John Boyne. Ambitious, far-reaching and mythic, it introduces a group of characters whose lives we will come to know and will follow through time and space until they reach their natural conclusion.


A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is a story of human history brimming with mythical vibrancy as we are invited to explore the world through a nonlinear lens. The challenge is to see the progress of a man’s life and his experiences from birth to an elderly grandfather over the course of two thousand and sixteen years, plus a seismic jump into the future amongst the stars in the epilogue.

Each chapter is based in a unique time and place, with a nebulous family of different names as the language varies with region. The novel starts in Palestine in 1 AD with obvious connections to the events of the time, including the slaughter of infant boys in the towns that surround Bethlehem, in fear that a King of the Jews was born. Death dispatched by his father, Marinus, a Roman soldier, he returned home that night and stared at his new-born son placing his hand on his head – the main character and narrator of the story.

“When he took it away, a trace of blood was left in its wake, a deadly deposit, and I’ve always wondered whether some residue of his crimes remained indelibly upon my soul, a tattoo invisible to all but the eyes of the gods, a reminder of the massacre of the innocents that was taking place as I filled my lungs with air for the first time.”

The second chapter moves to Turkey in 41 AD with the narrator’s father, now named Marek as a Roman legionnaire, under a mission for Emperor Caligula. Many of the scenes and actions illustrate that some darker facets of human existence are doomed to repeat over and over. A life of violence and predatory sex seems to follow the characters as they advance through eras that include many historical figures and events – such as Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, the Plague and Tsunamis.

The epilogue offers a future that finally breaks the cycle of sedition and egregious behaviour and is a sign of hope – ending the continuous encounters of violence, abuse, greed, fear, sexual dominance, hardship, discrimination, and distrust.

The conundrum John Boyne creates is that we know he has thought deeply about a message or messages woven throughout his novel but also making it personal for each reader to imagine and draw their own perspectives. This is a canvas to not only interpret John Boyne’s artistic genius but to paint our own imagination. The multiple interpretations of the novel hails the layers of clever considerations as a story unfolds with a fascinating leap between each chapter. I cannot imagine too many contemporary authors pulling this off.

The final two chapters are quite different again. The penultimate chapter is based in the US in 2016 when a new president is elected and it may just be the end of us all. I didn’t feel this chapter really worked but I can accept the following epilogue as a means of leaving us with some hope. I would highly recommend reading this book and would rate it 4.9 stars. I would like to thank Double Day Books, Random House UK and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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