I received a copy of this book from the publisher (Ace) in exchange for an honest review.
“A person can never hear too many tales. Tales are like honey cakes. Once you have tasted one, you want another, and another, and always more.”
This was my first encounter with Juliet Marillier, but it certainly won’t be the last. I can see her becoming one of those authors I turn to when I’ve just had enough of the darkness, and need something bright and pretty in my life. The Harp of Kings is lovely and lush and bright, a wonderful change from the grimdark that populates the fantasy genre. And from what I gather, that’s par for the course with Marillier’s work. While there are stakes here, it’s still a quiet story, inviting and soothing and somehow peaceful even when the events of the story are not. I found it to be a story that calls one to meander along instead of racing ahead. This book is the first in a new series of standalones, set in a world that will already be familiar to Marillier’s fans. But even if you’ve never read any of her work before (like me), this is a great starting point. I never felt lost in the least, though I am now definitely more curious about her various other series. Also, even thought this book is the first in a new series, it stands on its own perfectly well, with a plot that feels self contained and completely finished.
“Magic is real. It may not come in just the way you want, or exactly when you want it, because it’s tricky and unpredictably and…difficult. And sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s possible. But what about all those old stories? And the songs we sing every night? They are full of magic.”
I must confess that what drew me to this book was the title, of both this book in particular and its series. With names like The Harp of Kings and Warrior Bards, I knew that music would surely be a central theme. And it was! My favorite micro-genre of fantasy, if that’s even a thing, is musical fantasy. Whether the main character is a musician, or a song is at the core of something, or music just makes frequent appearances, I’ll always have a soft spot for books where music has some importance. The Name of the Wind, Bloody Rose, and The Troupe are among my favorite books of all time, and music is an important part of all three. Happily, The Harp of Kings scratched that itch, giving me a book with musicians serving as two of the three perspectives, a hunt for a mystical instrument that has mysteriously disappeared, and songs themselves even being used as weapons at one point.
“Thank the gods for music. The harp is my map and my lodestone, my balm and my comfort. It quiets my circling thoughts like nothing else can. I sing and play every night. Even when I am fighting, my mind teems with tunes and verses.”
The Harp of Kings is the story of three young warriors training in hopes of becoming Swan Island warriors, a renowned group with a strenuous selection process. Liobhan is hoping to join the even more elite group of female Swan Island warriors. She’s highly skilled and strong and fiercely determined, with a temper as fiery as her hair. She knows her mind and often acts or speaks before she thinks, though she’s working on that. Her brother Brocc is gifted and quietly charismatic, but lacks the drive that fuels Liobhan. Both siblings are talented musicians, but Brocc’s talent runs deeper, as does his passion for music. He can’t breathe without it. And while he wants to help his sister attain her goal, he would rather write and sing and play the harp than fight. Rounding out the trio is Dau, a stiff and unbending warrior who thinks that both Brocc and Liobhan are unworthy to become Swan Island warriors, Brocc because he would obviously rather be a musician, and Liobhan because she has the nerve to be female.
“…To be the best, you must give body, heart, and spirit… You have to put all of yourself into whatever you chose to do. That means one vocation and one only; if you’re the best, there’s nothing left to give.”
While there is no love lost between Dau and Liobhan, the each have to admit that the other is their greatest competition for one of the few slots open to new Swan Island recruits. Before their training is even complete, the three trainees are sent on a mission to recover the Harp of Kings, a mystical instrument that must be played at the coronation of a new king. Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau must become a team and find the lost harp before Midsummer, or the kingdom will have to wait another year for their king to be crowned. Throughout their journey, all three characters grow by leaps and bounds. Dau, who I had little liking for early on, proved to be the deepest, strongest character and ended up being my favorite of the three perspectives. His backstory was given piece by heartbreaking piece, and every new tidbit of information made me love him more. I hope to see a lot more of him, as well as the other two perspective characters, in future installments. There were also some wonderful supporting characters, my favorite of whom was Mistress Juniper. And Marillier did a wonderful job of making animals feel vitally important and alive, especially through Dau’s eyes.
“Music opens doors, yes; but only if those who live behind those doors want visitors.”
This story is told in present tense from three first person perspectives. I’m not usually the biggest fan of first person present tense, but it works well here. Marillier made the voice of each perspective different enough to be convincing. I found that this choice in storytelling style also kept the book from feeling too formal, giving it a freshness it might not have otherwise had.
“And there is a great magic; a power that comes from the very land we tread, from ocean and forest, from the deepest cavern to the high pathways of sun and moon. When the path ahead seems dark and difficult, when you cannot find the right way, call on that power to guid you, for within each of us, even the smallest, there is a spark of that great fire.”
While I enjoyed the characters, and the fact that the story had music as such a central, important theme, my favorite element of this book was the setting. It felt very Irish, and I think Irish folklore has much to offer the fantasy world. I loved the presence of druids, and the composition and variety of the Folk, Fae-like beings who share this world but keep their presence hidden from most. There was a beauty to this mystical setting that felt both classic and timeless.
I cannot come with you wherever you go,
And I cannot stay by you in joy and in woe,
But I’ll be beside you, though gone from your sight,
I’ll love you and guard you till we meet in the light.
The Harp of Kings is not a book I consumed quickly over a handful of sittings. I sipped on this book for nearly two weeks, which seems like a long time for such a small book. But I very much enjoyed having something so pretty and different to metaphorically snack on after a long day, and I wanted to prolong that enjoyment for as long as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed The Harp of Kings, and will definitely be making periodic forays into Marillier’s backlog while I eagerly away the next installment in this series.
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