Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and is a rare talent on the harp. But Liobhan’s burning ambition is to join the elite warrior band on Swan Island. She and her brother train there to compete for places, and find themselves joining a mission while still candidates. Their unusual blend of skills makes them ideal for this particular job, which requires going undercover as traveling minstrels. For Swan Island trains both warriors and spies.
Their mission: to find and retrieve a precious harp, an ancient symbol of kingship, which has gone missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the kingdom will be thrown into disarray. Faced with plotting courtiers and tight-lipped druids, an insightful storyteller, and a boorish Crown Prince, Liobhan soon realizes an Otherworld power may be meddling in the affairs of the kingdom. When ambition clashes with conscience, Liobhan must make a bold decision—and the consequences may break her heart.
Juliet Marillier is one of my insta-buy authors and this book just confirms why that’s the case. The Harp of Kings launches a new series, Warrior Bards. I’m not sure if it will follow the same format as the Blackthorn & Grim series (following the same set of characters; more mystery, slow burn romance) or the Sevenwaters series (a different couple in each book; very much historical fantasy romance), but I suspect it will be the former. This story also nicely intersects the two established series in this world (the aforementioned Sevenwaters and Blackthorn & Grim). If you’re new to Marillier, this book is a good place to start!
The Harp of Kings follows a trio of Swan Island trainees who have been drafted into a secret mission because of their unique skillset. Liobhan and Brocc are siblings who are, you guessed it, warrior bards. Brocc is more bard than warrior in spirit. Liobhan leans the opposite way. The third trainee is Dau, and there’s a whole lot of tension between he and Liobhan because they’re constantly in competition with each other, and there are limited slots on the island. Also, Dau is one of those “I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win” kind of guys.
Basically, they’re all sent undercover, along with two actual Swan Island warriors, in order to retrieve the Harp of Kings, which was stolen mysteriously. There’s the ticking clock of a pending coronation, and the new king won’t be accepted by the people unless the harp is played. As is usually the case with Marillier’s books, there are uncanny things afoot.
This book was just a true delight.
Liobhan is capable in a number of ways and very aware of her skillsets and her value to the team. She’s also hamstrung by the role she’s forced to play during the investigation, and it was an interesting foil for her. She’s not like other girls, you see, and that could have been really cloying because it’s not my favorite sentiment in fiction or reality, but it’s handled really well here.
Dau is one of those kind-of-jerks who’s worked really hard to not be the broken person he was in the past, and to escape the trauma he’s experienced. He starts out with very much a lone wolf perspective, despite working hard to be accepted into Swan Island, and his journey to learning that he can trust and lean on his comrades is really satisfying.
Liobhan and Dau form the romantic subplot, which is a rivals turned romantic story. She doesn’t get why he’s so withdrawn and holds himself apart. He can’t understand why she’s a woman attempting to be on Swan Island when she has a family and a place for her at home. Through their mission’s increasing level of danger, their trust in each other grows really beautifully. Dau ends up being kind of in awe of Liobhan (and rightfully so—she’s awesome). He also allows Liobhan to see parts of himself that he’s kept walled away, which builds their intimacy. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re in love by the end of the first book, but there’s a very strong attraction between them and a good foundation for things to come.
Brocc… I loved Brocc. Of the three, he might be my favorite because he has a bit of uncanny about him, too, though I have questions that were left unanswered by this story. I hope to see more of him in future books, because there were elements of his journey that feel very unresolved (but not in a way that detracts from my enjoyment from this book).
All in all, it was a great read. Really excellent nuanced characters. The mystery wasn’t overly surprising in how it played out, but it was satisfying all the same. If you enjoy historical fantasy that’s written almost lyrically, as if someone sat you down by a fire to tell you a tale. It’s got a little bit of everything—action, adventure, a mystery, romance, magic—that forms into a really lovely cohesive whole.
Content warning: There is an attempted sexual assault that happens on page, and although it does not get far, it may be triggering for some readers.
You can buy a copy here.