Book Review: The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Warrior Bards
Publisher: Ace (September 3, 2019)
Length: 464 pages
Author Information: Website
I’ll always and forever be a big fan of Juliet Marillier, but I also have to be honest, and the truth is I wasn’t too crazy about this one. Bear in mind though, I’ve probably been spoiled so hard by her Sevenwaters series and Blackthorn & Grim trilogy that these days I set a pretty high bar whenever I pick up one of her books, and to be sure, The Harp of Kings was a solid fantasy novel but I don’t think it was her best.
This story follows three characters—siblings Liobhan and Brocc, and their companion Dau—with the narrative split relatively evenly between their points-of-view. Our trio of young protagonists are initiates on Swan Island, a society that trains warrior and spies. Eager to prove themselves and become full-fledged members, they are thus elated when their superiors tap the three of them for a top secret mission to retrieve an artifact known as the Harp of Kings, so named because it would be ceremonially required at the naming of the next monarch. Without the harp, which has gone missing, it is feared that the people will not accept their new king, so it is of utmost importance that the instrument is found before the upcoming coronation.
But as it turns out, their mission might not be so simple. Assigned new names and backgrounds, they must go undercover and adopt their new identities completely as not to arouse suspicion. Sister and brother team Liobhan and Brocc, both being talented musicians, are tasked to pose as traveling bards, but Dau, their fellow trainee, is given the role of a mute stable boy. Together, they travel to meet Prince Rodan, the one who would soon be crowned king, only to find he’s a boorish little cad that nobody likes. Worse, as our characters learn about the harp and the history of the royal family, they come to realize there may be more otherworldly forces at play. Here where the edges of the mortal realm meet the Fae’s, creatures of magic also have a stake in the future of the kingship.
This book started with so much promise. I loved the beginning, which featured an introduction to our three protagonists, what they do on Swan Island, and all the training that they had to go through to prepare for their journey. It was fascinating reading, especially since we’re talking about Juliet Marillier, who’s a literary genius when it comes to writing characters and her signature Celtic-inspired worlds. And indeed, everything was going well; I was moving along with the flow of things and really getting a feel for Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau in their new roles…when suddenly, they reached their destination and all of it ground to a screeching halt.
I mean, I adore Marillier’s lyrical writing style and I also appreciate how her stories take time to mature. These things can’t be rushed, and a lot of her books are written in a way that is meant to savored. That said, I felt that the pacing of The Harp of Kings was terribly unbalanced, especially after the first quarter where I felt no overall progress was being made and our characters were spinning their wheels with inconsequential side-plots that added little development to the overall story. At one point, we got so off-track that I even forgot they were supposed to be looking for a harp.
This book is also geared towards YA, and every so often, it really shows. Our three protagonists are teenagers with hotheaded and impulsive personalities, and they bring along some of the usual adolescent hang ups. But this also made it more difficult for me to connect with the characters because they frequently let their emotions get the better of them, leading them to make questionable decisions. Needless to say, they all made terrible spies. The POV switches were also uneven and it was easy to confuse Brocc and Dau’s voices because of how similar they were, and the boys also dominated the first half of the book whereas Liobhan’s chapters featured intermittently until she became a steadier presence in the second half.
Simply put, The Harp of Kings just didn’t click for me as well as some of Juliet Marillier’s other books. Nevertheless, if you enjoy spending time in her fantasy worlds, or if you are a fan of the way she blends history, magic, and intrigue in her work, then perhaps you’ll still want to give it a try because I think you’ll find yourself feeling right at home. More importantly, this hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for her work, and I look forward to the next Warrior Bards book with the hopes that it will improve on the issues I found with this one.