The Harp of Kings – ARC review

Author: Juliet Marillier
Publication Date: September 3, 2019
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 5/5 stars

Prior to winning this book in a Goodreads Giveaway, I had not heard of Juliet Marillier. Apparently, her most popular books came out when I was still a little too young to read them, but after skimming some of her info on Goodreads, I realized she has quite a devoted fanbase. Now, having read The Harp of Kings, I can see why. Brimming with Celtic mythology, fierce warriors, passionate musicians, and memorable characters, this book feels like a classic quest fantasy in all the best ways.

So, let’s start with the main characters. I love them all, and they’re possibly the biggest thing I love about this book. They’re fully developed, and the book rotates nicely between their three points of view, each with a distinct voice (which, you know, can be a really hard thing for an author to pull off well). Here’s a snapshot of each of them:

Liobhan: tough warrior girl, talented whistle player, loyal sister, general badass with some impulse control issues.She’s our primary narrator, and, in keeping with a theme in recent books I’ve been reading, she’s exactly the sort of protagonist I like to root for. She is fiercely dedicated to her brother, Brocc, and she is determined to prove herself worthy at all costs—even though that sometimes involves breaking the rules and/or speaking out when she probably shouldn’t. Love this girl, and would totally be her friend, want to see more of her.

Brocc: sensitive soul, can hold his own in a fight, an unparalleled harpist and singer, has more than a few secrets. I had mixed feelings about Brocc early on in the book, but as time passed and some of his backstory came to life, he became the most intriguing of the characters, if not always the most interesting to read about. That’s not his fault—he gets pulled away from the main quest after a while, so his chapters have a bit less action and a bit more thinking. Still, he’s a smart cookie, and I love how his thoughts are often interspersed with sudden flashes of inspiration on songs he wants to write about where he’s going. He is truly a musician, first and foremost, even if he’s training to be a warrior/spy.

Dau: outwardly tough but inwardly broken, running from a horrible past, slow to trust, a fighter like no other, as dedicated as it is humanly possible to be. He’s my favorite, for sure (but then, I love characters with complex and traumatic histories, especially when you can just tell that they have a heart of gold under their prickly exterior). I don’t want to spoil too much about him, because his character evolves the most over the course of the story, and I don’t want you to go in with any false preconceived notions, but…man, I would take a bullet for this guy.

I don’t love the plot description that the publisher gives, so here’s my brief synopsis (no spoilers, of course): the kingdom of Breifne is in trouble. Prince Rodan is nearing his eighteenth birthday, when he is set to inherit the throne, which is currently being held by the regent Lord Cathra. There are just two problems: first, the Harp of Kings—a ceremonial instrument used to show divine favor for each new monarch—has gone missing. And second, Rodan is not really the sort of guy you want to be king. 

Enter the people of Swan Island, where warriors are trained for the most important of missions. Three of the island’s students (Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau), along with two of their instructors, set out for Breifne, disguised as traveling minstrels, a farrier, and a mute apprentice, to search for the harp and try to retrieve it before the coronation. Espionage is not always easy, though, and it soon becomes apparent that the problem is much bigger than just some malcontents opposed to the royal family. There are druids, fairies, wise-women, and court members, all conspiring and quarrelling in secret, while the lives and happiness of others are caught in the balance. 

I already gave you a rundown of things I loved about the main characters, so I won’t reiterate those, but I did love how their three very separate stories became increasingly more closely connected, especially as the individual clues they found gradually came together to resolve the mystery of where the harp went, and why. By the end of the book, the switching points of view were no longer jumps to different scenes; they were just different perspectives on the same narrative line, depending on whose insight was most relevant. The side characters they interacted with were vivid as well, from the innocent young Aislinn to the gentle-yet-respected Faelan to the mysterious-yet-helpful Mistress Juniper the downright awful Prince Rodan himself.

Speaking of the awful Prince Rodan, I should note that Marillier does not shy away from difficult topics in this one. The characters have been through some awful experiences, especially Dau, and those experiences don’t just magically disappear; they creep back into the characters’ thoughts and influence their future decisions. Dealing with difficult life situations also drives the choices of some of the side characters, which in turn shapes the path the main characters have to take.

A few more notes that don’t really fit anywhere: 
Marillier is a masterful worldbuilder. The history and politics of Breifne are well-developed, with complex family histories and mythologies that have evolved over time, as well as traditions whose roots are forgotten and groups who have been sidelined and are less-than-happy about it. The whole world really sprang from the page.
– There is not much romance in this book. Not that there wasn’t any, but it was subtle, and it was mostly buildup toward what I hope will be further explored in the rest of the series. I, for one, was pretty happy with that choice; it let us focus on the plot and characters, not just who we wanted to ship with whom.

I could keep going for ages, but it would probably just turn into an extended rant about things I loved about this book, so I’ll leave it at this: if you want a good old-fashioned fantasy with a beating heart and vibrant world, this is a great pick. 5/5 stars, would definitely recommend.

Trigger/content warnings: child abuse, sexual assault, mention of suicide, torture/killing of an animal. All handled very well, and none are too graphic, but they are not shied away from either.

I received a free ARC of this book from the publisher through a Goodreads giveaway (thank you!). This has not influenced my rating in any way.

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