Juliet Marillier has long been a favourite of mine, mostly thanks to her deft blending of magic, fairytale and history. Of all her books, the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy have been my favourite, so I was delighted when she released a new series about the children of the eponymous couple.
Liobhan and Brocc are students at Swan Island, a hidden community of warriors and spies. Competition for graduate positions is fierce, with most of the cohort failing and being sent home. However, the siblings are talented and have a good chance at being accepted. Nevertheless, they are surprised when their teachers request they undertake a mission; their talents as musicians make them ideal candidates to track down the missing Harp of Kings.
The Harp of Kings brings together several of Marillier’s older series. There are direct references to the Sevenwaters and Wolfskin series, plus of course Blackthorn and Grim. You don’t need to have read any of these before The Harp of Kings, though I think it helps to have read Blackthorn and Grim. Not only does it provide context about the parentage of Liobhan and Brocc, but it also has the strongest stylistic influence.
For example, as with the previous series, this book is told in first person, with the point of view alternating between three characters: Liobhan, Brocc and their fellow student Dau. Marillier has mentioned before that she’d hoped to continue writing more of Blackthorn and Grim after the final book in their trilogy, Den of Wolves (indeed, the conclusion of that book suffered somewhat from feeling rushed). While she hasn’t been afforded that opportunity, the characters of Blackthorn, Grim and (redacted) map rather neatly onto the POV characters in The Harp of Kings.
Liobhan is a woman in a male-dominated field and is the only female candidate to Swan Island among her cohort. She’s been brought up by her feminist mother to know her own value. Hungry for success, she fights hard and is good at what she does. Her confidence can be misinterpreted as cockiness, and indeed, if she were a male character I might enjoy seeing her get her comeuppance. Instead, her battle with her temper in the face of the patriarchy makes her all the more sympathetic. And fighting is not all she does; her skills as a musician are highly valued. Nor is she afraid to show her vulnerability.
Her brother, Brocc, is less warrior and more bard. It is clear from early on that he’s only on Swan Island for his sister; his heart lies more truly with his music, his head in the clouds. He doesn’t desire power, but misses home.
The final POV character is Dau, a fellow student and rival of Liobhan’s. Being brought up more traditionally, he harbours some sexist views and tries to convince Liobhan to give up fighting in favour of the more feminine pursuit of music. His voice is more distinct, tending towards the factual and detached, though this softens along with his character — and indeed with our view of him as we come to learn more of his backstory.
The story’s premise also owes something to the parent trilogy, which often involved the investigation of some mystery that most likely has some kind of supernatural element. As with many of the author’s works, the fae have a strong presence, though it’s not always recognised immediately. Other common signature elements present include dogs and herbalism.
I would give a content warning on this book for cruelty to animals, bullying and sexual assault.
I’m not sure how I feel about the continued presence of sexual assault in Marillier’s work. The incident in The Harp of Kings certainly could have been much worse, and is a far cry from the rape that took place in the first of the Sevenwaters books, Daughter of the Forest. And it is important to acknowledge the existence of such incidents, particularly as they relate to the themes of female powerlessness and feminism present in this book and its parent trilogy. However, I’m not fond of their reoccurrence across the author’s body of work.
The book also doesn’t do much with diversity on any spectrum. While Dau masquerades as mute farrier’s apprentice for much of the story, his muteness is mostly for plot purposes and is discarded when it doesn’t serve. The story doesn’t really delve into the lived experience of permanently being that way.
However, on the whole, I enjoyed The Harp of Kings. It served up exactly what long-time fans of Marillier have come to expect, and will appeal to readers who will appreciate badass lady warriors and historical fairytales.