There is a rich vein of Celtic history and mythology that runs from The Harp of Kings and pre-Christian Ireland all the way to Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels and Appalachia. The Harp of Kings benefits from that rich history, creating something with greater resonance than the pale imitation of an imitation fantasy that has clogged the genre over the past few decades. But it is really the characters, not the worldbuilding, that carries The Harp of Kings.
The Harp of Kings opens with Liobhan and her brother, Brocc, training for a coveted spot as an elite warrior on Swan Island. The powers that be on the island pick them for a mission before their training ends. They also pick another trainee, Liobhan’s unfriendly rival Dau.
They are assigned to enter a hold undercover and locate the stolen, titular Harp of Kings before anyone knows it’s gone. Liobhan and Brocc are talented musicians and will pose as professional musicians (if you want inspiration for your D&D warrior bard, this is your book). The harp is needed for the crowning of the new king or he won’t be seen as legitimate. Which isn’t to say that he would make much of a king. And the kingdom has bigger problems, with fey crow-things haunting the outskirts of the kingdom.
The Harp of Kings is heavily character driven. Limiting the narrative to three POV characters—Liobhan, Brocc, and Dau—allows us plenty of time with each. Liobhan is the most accessible of the POV characters; the feisty female fighter is a well-worn, if welcome, character type. Brocc is the most mysterious character, with a past that will be key to the plot. Dau’s past is less mysterious, although Marillier is judicious in her reveal. Dau’s POV is also where Marillier does her finest storytelling.
Character rehabilitation is hot these days. But it can be cheap, as where the writer essentially manipulates the reader into feeling sympathy for a character who—to pull an example from thin air—pushed a child out of a window to protect his incestuous affair. Dau, though, is just a jerk. His POV is effective because we see at least part of the reason he is a jerk, and we get a front-row seat to watch him grow as a person (and character). Really, it is hard for me to express how well Marillier does this.
The Harp of Kings is set in what is presumably pre-Christian Ireland or a very close analogue and is suffused with Celtic mythology. In addition to the crow-things, there are druids, a wise woman, and, of course, the Fair Folk. The worldbuilding takes a backseat to characterization, which is a shame, because I would love to dive into some more fantasy rooted in Celtic mythology. It is that failure to lean into the worldbuilding a little more that keeps The Harp of Kings at 4 stars for me instead of 4.5 or 5.
The Harp of Kings is connected to Marilllier’s previous Blackthorn & Grim series. I haven’t read the previous series, but The Harp of Kings works as a standalone.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an advance copy of The Harp of Kings.