The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier

Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and 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 mysteriously missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the people could revolt. 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 is faced with a heartbreaking choice.

Content warning at the bottom of the review.

As a fan of Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim books, I was thrilled when a sequel series was announced. The Harp of Kings takes place 20 years or so after Den of Wolves, and can be read independently (although, I would recommend Blackthorn and Grim anyway).

We follow three characters, through three first-person points of view: Liobhan, her brother Brocc, and a chieftain’s son, Dau. All three are part of an elite school that trains warrior-spies. Liobhan and Brocc are both talented musicians (hence the title of the series, “Warrior Bards”) and music is a crucial part of the story. They try to unravel the mystery of the disappearing harp of kings, undercover in a kingdom plagued by both an unsuitable future king and a dark, uncanny threat.

Marillier is truly the queen of slow-burn. If you expect a high-action plot, full of shenanigans, that’s not the right book for you. But slow doesn’t mean boring, far from it. The story is intricate and pieces of the puzzle are revealed at a steady pace, and, as usual with Marillier, Celtic-inspired mythology is never too far.

The pacing also allows for a fantastic character development work. Liobhan and Brocc are a joy to read about – siblings in fantasy? With a fierce badass warrior sister and a musician, “softer” brother? Yes, 100%, please and thank you. But Dau is the character who truly stole the show (and my heart, in the process).

A magical, slightly creepy atmosphere, a cool premise, a mystery, political schemes, endearing protagonists…Basically my book-catnip. I had one major issue with the story, though, but it’s a spoiler. To stay vague, it’s about impunity and consequences. It frustrated me enough to drop a star from my Goodreads rating… I do hope it’s going to be addressed in the sequels.

The story is pretty much self-contained but sets the groundwork for sequels. If it’s anything like Blackthorn and Grim, it will be a procedural-type series with a bigger, overreaching plot.

CONTENT WARNING (things that I caught, might not be exhaustive):

Child abuse (physical), gruesome death of a pet (flashback), attempted rape.

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