Jack of all Trades: A Review of The Harp of Kings, by Juliet Marillier

Folklore is ingrained in cultures around the world and is one of the most common inspirations for fantasy fiction around.  For as long humans have been curious and looking for explanations, folklore has been there to fill in the gaps.  Human minds created thousands of fantastical creatures and unique worlds, separate from our own in an effort to explain the workings of the world.  A family with an unruly child might be nurturing a changeling, while the striking of lightning might signal the fury of a grand spirit.  When items went missing in a house, there were stolen by gremlins or other creatures.  These beliefs used to be common knowledge, known to be true around the world.  But there comes a certain point in every culture when people stop believing, when the explanations for phenomena are found to be mundane.  The belief may be gone, but the influence of these stories lingers.

The Harp of Kings is the first novel in the Warrior Bards series and the latest novel by established fantasy author Juliet Mirallier.  Originally from New Zealand, Mirallier is an establishment in historical fantasy with multiple series written and published in her long career.  Her stories all draw of folklore from around the world, either creating new worlds or looking back on our own.  We may no longer believe in fairies, but, hundreds of years ago, people knew them to be real.  The Harp of Kings is the newest of her historical fantasy novels, eschewing a fictional world as a setting for what appears to be medieval Ireland before the English domination.  The characters all have wonderfully Celtic names, such as Liobhan, Aislinn, and Rodan.  It is worth noting that Mirallier’s interest in Gaelic mythology must have stemmed from an early age, growing up in a heavily Scottish town in New Zealand.  Today, she is also a member of OBOD; the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

The Harp of Kings follows Liobhan, her brother Brocc, and their rival Dau, all apparently in their late teens and training at the legendary Swan Island.  Liobhan and Brocc are bards, while Dau appears to be from a family with status.  Swan Island is known for training the best warriors, mercenaries, and spies.  While we do not learn Liobhan and Brocc’s motivations for their training, Dau is more of an open book.  In the midst of their training, the three are pulled onto a last-minute assignment led by their more experienced superiors.  The harp of kings, a ceremonial harp needed during the ceremony to crown the next king of Breifne at Midsummer, has gone missing.  Liobhan and Brocc are selected for their musical talents, while Dau is the best fighter in the training class and could provide valuable support.  The three arrive in Breifne undercover and on a mission to locate the missing harp.  Finding and dealing with the perpetrator, while preferred, is not required of them.  Most of the story follows their dealings in Breifne and their undercover lives as the three all discover new aspects of their personalities, and evolve past some of their more negative traits.  Things are also not what they seem in Breifne, as uncanny happenings start to intertwine with the affairs of mortals.

While The Harp of Kings actually follows the first-person point-of-view of three different characters, this is very much the story of Liobhan.  The novel opens with her training at Swan Island, and nearly closes with her returning.  Brocc and Dau may share a similar page length in the story, but it feels like readers spend more time with Liobhan than the other two, to the great benefit of the tale.  Liobhan is both strong-willed and strong.  Described as taller than most women and muscular, only fools decide intruding upon her is a good idea.  She is quick to anger and uses her sharp tongue to great effect.  While that is one of the most useful tools for a bard, Liobhan wants to be a warrior and a spy.  Holding her tongue and listening may not be her strongest abilities at the beginning of the novel, but she comes to learn the lesson as the story progresses.  Initially consumed with completing the mission and proving herself, Liobhan also takes the time to slow down and show kindness when kindness is needed.

Brocc and Dau, the other two POV characters, are both interesting characters in their own right, although they are overshadowed by Liobhan.  Brocc is supposedly Liobhan’s fraternal twin brother, although other characters observe that there is not really a familial resemblance.  However, the two deeply care for each other and are nigh inseparable.  Brocc is the opposite of his sister in personality and fighting style.  Soft-spoken and soft, he does not take advantage of weak points like Liobhan.  Both are remarkable musicians, although Brocc is clearly special.  It is never clear why he followed Liobhan to Swan Island, despite only wishing to return home.  Music is his one true love.  Dau, on the other hand, is analytical and cocky.  He views Liobhan as his rival in Swan Island as she is the only one in their training class who even comes close to his abilities.  However, he does not respect her at the start of the novel due to her straddling two worlds; music and fighting.  While he is one hundred percent committed to his training, he views Liobhan as not fully decided on her future yet.  Forced to masquerade a mute stable-hand while undercover, Dau goes through the most character growth as he is forced to accept his own vulnerability and learn that kindness is more powerful than anything.

Kindness is one of the central themes of the novel, and this is a novel with a few themes.  Multiple times, characters decide to show kindness to another even if doing so jeopardizes the mission at hand.  Nowhere is this as clear as with Liobhan’s interactions with the six-year-old Aislinn.  Initially unaware of Aislinn’s noble roots, Liobhan sees a little girl in need of a friend and possible rescuer.  Although staying close to her runs the risk of being uncovered, Liobhan realizes she cannot leave the girl alone.  Characters also break the rules multiple times when they know the rules are only getting in the way of doing the right thing.  While some rules are meant to protect people, some may no longer apply.  The Harp of Kings is also interested in the question of what makes a person a good ruler, and what gives a person the right to rule.  The crown prince of Breifne, Rodan, is cruel, petty, and volatile.  While he may be the first in line for the throne and the individual with the strongest claim, he is clearly not the best candidate.  Completing the mission means getting him crowned, and possibly throwing Breifne into tyranny.  Characters also express the importance of showing deference those wiser and more experienced than oneself.  People with true wisdom, not those with status who are assumed to be wise.  Wisdom cannot be taught, but can be learned.

In the end, The Harp of Kings is an enjoyable historical fantasy with some very interesting characters and serves as a good introduction to a new series.  The novel is written in the present tense, which can take some getting used to as most fiction is written in the near past.  Coupled with the first-person POV, this places us in the moment with the characters.  They are not telling us their story after the fact, but are experiencing it with every word written.  I am very interested to see where Marillier takes the Warrior Bards next.

The Harp of Kings can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 10 days

Next on the List: Aurora Blazing, by Jessie Mihalik

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