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The Harp of Kings



From the Blurb:

BARD. WARRIOR. REBEL.
Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and is 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 missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the kingdom will be thrown into disarray. 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 the consequences may break her heart.”

Review:
The Harp of Kings by New-Zealand born author Juliet Marillier is the first novel in The Warrior Bards, a new historical fantasy series.

The Harp of Kings follows three trainee warriors of Swan Island, hopeful to join the ranks of the elite warriors and spies hired by Chieftains, lords and occasionally kings throughout kingdom of Erin to resolve conflicts or gather information. The protagonist is the trainee Liobhan but concurrent storylines are also narrated by her brother Broc and fellow Swan Island trainee, Dau. The three trainees are chosen to join the experienced Swan Island team on a mission to a king’s court, where the crowning of a new king traditionally requires playing a ceremonial harp, an ancient instrument symbolising the bonds of faith between the Fae and the mortal realms. Both Liobhan and Broc are trained musicians and children raised by a wise-woman. The Swan Island team are hired to find the stolen harp before the kingship ceremony or risk discontent or the new king’s reign might be considered cursed.

Liobhan and Broc, hired to play at the king’s court while they try to uncover any information about the location of the stolen harp or who might have reasons to steal the harp and threaten the new king’s claim to the throne. Dau is hired in the stables, disguised as a mute farrier acting as support to Liobhan and Broc. Soon, Dau and Liobhan discover the prince has a violent temper and a history of oppressing his people. Broc focuses his investigations on the Druid community where the harp was supposed to be kept between crowning ceremonies. There, Broc learns an old tale of the harp’s origin from Faylan, a promising noviciate who sends him to a wise-woman in the nearby forest, recently cursed by eldritch crows. But Broc has a yearning for the Otherworld and enters it, hoping to uncovers the answers to his own secrets about the origins of his uncanny talent as a harpist and singer. While Broc is in the Otherworld, Liobhan and Dau discover important secrets about the identity of the Druid noviciate Faylan.

My Thoughts?

The Harp of Kings has several layers where aside from exploring the mystery of the stolen harp, deeper truths must also be uncovered by the Swan Island trainees about themselves. Liobhan struggles to trust others where she has relied on Broc, she must now trust Dau, a man for whom she has misgivings, falsely placed. Dau is forced to confront the dark fears of his past and challenge his closed-mindedness and Broc decide which path he will take to determine his own future.

Conclusion?

The Harp of Kings is a wonderful Fantasy read, rich in historical detail and early Irish culture. A highly recommended read for old and new fans of Juliet Marillier alike. A must read!

Short Stories, Writing

Fantasy novella & mythic parallels

I recently finished a novella inspired from my initial research for my latest novel draft Ragnarok Dreaming into Norse mythology and Australian Aboriginal legends. On the surface, there might seem little in common between the Viking legends and those of the oldest continuous culture on the planet. The purpose of the novella was not to re-tell any stories or legends, because these are not my ancestry nor mine to tell, instead, I wanted to explore the common elements shared between them. The themes that unite all humanity across time and place. In this, I was drawn as I often am, to the fascinating Trickster figures in legends and stories throughout the world. In Norse mythology, Loki is the Trickster figure and protagonist of the novella relocated into a cosmos inspired by Australian dreaming stories. The Trickster figure who aids Loki is Wahn, the Crow in many Aboriginal legends. The novella was a re-imagining of the parallels and opposites in legends and myth, expanding on what was interesting research for Ragnarok Dreaming.

research, Writing

Iceland: Iceberg Lagoons & Beaches

In early September 2019, I visited Iceland as part of my writing research into Norse mythology, Viking Age history. The role of the landscape has been important in shaping the Icelandic legends and I was fortunate enough to see some of the archaeological and cultural history as well as those in the natural landscape. On a tour of the unique southern Icelandic landscape, I visited iconic waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches, glacial lagoons and rode Icelandic horses.


Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon for Breidamerkurjokullon, the tongue of Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull glacier. Jökulsárlón lagoon is located between the southern Icelandic town of Hofn and Skaftafell nature reserve. While visiting Jökulsárlón, I took one of the boat tour of the lagoon (only offered in warmer months) to get a closer look at the icebergs formed from the glacial melt, which creates the lagoon.

The icebergs of Jökulsárlón lagoon are part of the glacier that, as it melts break off into the lagoon and are washed out into the ocean. Within Jökulsárlón are a surprisingly diverse marine life. There were several species of sea birds, gulls and other large water birds who frequented the lagoon outlet where the icebergs flowed swiftly into the ocean. These birds were remarkably savvy at navigating the swift currents to avoid collision with the icebergs. There were also several species of shy seals who avoided the boats but were frequently seen observing our passage from the beneath the shelter of nearby icebergs.

The clear divide between the waters of Jökulsárlón lagoon and the glacier beyond, the waterline of the lagoon contained some larger icebergs that had clustered along the edges.

The icebergs that break off the glacier into Jökulsárlón and pass through the lagoon were stunning to behold the clear layers visible to the eye as the boat manoeuvred around them.

The view from near the ocean, looking back along the lagoon outlet from Jökulsárlón with the glacier in the background.


“Diamond beach” is a popular site among many photographers for the iconic images of the icebergs that pass from the lagoon outlet of Jökulsárlón to where they meet the ocean.

The large icebergs were an amazing sight as they were buffeted by the waves coming into shore. It was surreal and beautiful to experience such a unique landscape.

The black sand beach was scattered with icebergs in various stages of melt as the fresh glacial water they are formed from dissolved rapidly in the warmer salty ocean temperatures.

Walking along diamond beach was one of the most spectacular places I had ever visited. It was pleasure to be there and witness such a natural but phenomenal landscape.

research, Writing

Iceland: Reynisfjara Beach

In early September 2019, I visited Iceland as part of my writing research into Norse mythology, Viking Age history. The role of the landscape has been important in shaping the Icelandic legends and I was fortunate enough to see some of the archaeological and cultural history as well as those in the natural landscape. On a tour of the unique southern Icelandic landscape, I visited iconic waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches, glacial lagoons and rode Icelandic horses.


Reynisfjara beach is located southwest of Vik on the southern Icelandic coast. The popular site was busy when I visited despite the incoming autumn storm. Reynisfjara beach has the iconic black volcanic sand of Icelandic beaches and the larger stones frequently washed ashore from volcanic eruptions and subsequent floodwaters carrying debris from the coastline into the ocean. Reynisfjara is also known for the large basalt stone pillars off the coast, remnants of ancient cliffs before sea level changes over millenia have eroded them into current form. These pillars and the nearby cliffs are associated with many Viking Age legends and myths.

The unusual basalt pillar-like formations of the cliffs on Reynisfjara beach are a popular attraction. These distinctive columns have such a uniform appearance that it is hard to remember they are created by natural geological processes and not by human hand.

In many Icelandic legends and folklore, the caves at Reynisfjara beach were thought to be the work of the dark elves (dwarves), and mark the entrance to undergournd passages where the Hidden dwell. Seeing the distinctive cliffs and caverns for myself, I can readily imagine how such caves would be an entrance to Svartalfheim itself.

The Reynisdrangar sea stacks are large basalt pillars located off the shore of Reynisfjara beach. One of the legends surrounding these twin pillars is that they are actually trolls who were wading out into the ocean and caught by the sun’s rays. In Icelandic folklore, trolls are unable to tolerate sunlight and are immediately transformed into stone. These twin stone pillars represent two trolls who failed to return to the sea cave before first sunlight.

On the opposite end of the Reynisfjara beach is another of the unusual sea stacks, this one is furthest from the coastline at the southernmost tip of the Arch of Dyrhólaey. This stone formation has another legend, also about an unlucky troll transformed to stone. In this folktale, the troll was late returning from a sea voyage and has been caught by the sunlight while still hauling his boat onto the shore. Both the boat and the troll have been turned to stone, forever petrified in place.

One of the most striking things about Reynisfjara beach was the unpredictable ocean. For visitors, there are warning signs about the dangers of wave surges onto the shore which are unpredictable and have been known to drag groups of unwary tourists out into the freezing waters which are dangerous with rips and strong currents. On the day I visited, a storm was blowing off the coast and the surge of the waves was unpredictable which only increased the unusual sense of wildness about the place. A magical part of Iceland but one requiring great respect and vigilance.

reads, Recent Reads

Gods of Jade and Shadow

From the blurb:

“The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it–and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan God of Death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true. In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey, from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City–and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.”


Review:

I recently read Gods of Jade and Shadow by Mexican-born Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a historical fantasy inspired by the folklore of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth and retold in 1920s Jazz-era Mexico featuring Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and formidable the twins-lords, Hun-Kame and Vacub-Kame.
The unlikely heroine of Gods of Jade and Shadow is Casiopea Tun, the a poor cousin and treated like a servant in her grandfather’s house after her father’s death forced her destitute mother to return home to rural Uu­kumil. But Casiopea is proud and independent but as she grows to adulthood her dreams have become crippled by the confines of the small, rural world of Uukumil and she only dreams now of escaping it. In a sudden act of defiance, Casiopea opens a chest in her grandfather’s room, unknowingly releasing the death-god imprisioned within. The god is Hun-Kame, Lord of Xibalba who has been imprisoned in the chest since Casiopea’s grandfather aided his twin Vacub-Kame, to take control of the Underworld.
Once again free, Hun-Kame must reunite the missing pieces of himself taken from his body to regain his full-power. There is a cost to regaining his power. Hun-Kame maintains his mortal form only through Casiopea who has a shard of his bone embedded in her hand. If she removes the bone shard, Hun-Kame will fade and his brother take dominance of the Underworld forever. But Casiopea has little interest in letting Hun-Kame lose, he offers her escape from the dull existence in Uukumil, the chance to see more of the world, even as she knows the bone shard within her drains her life while strengthening Hun-Kame’s. Together Casiopea and Hun-Kame must race against time to restore the missing parts of Hun-Kame’s body and reunite his power before too much of Casiopea’s strength is drained and before Hun-Kame risks becoming mortal. It is a delicate game to maintain the balance between life and death and soon, Casiopea and Hun-Kame begin to hope for more than the original bargain they set themselves.
In Xibalba, Vacub-Kame had bitterly spent the ages in the footsteps of his twin where Hun-Kame was the rightful ruler of the Underworld. In the final treachery that allowed Vacub-Kame to imprison his twin brother and take Xibalba for himself, a greater plan has grown to destroy Hun-Kame forever and restore the dominion of Xibalba over earth, returning the ancient Mayan practices of blood sacrifices and terror in his worship. In Baja California, Hun-Kame and Vacub-Kame must finally battle for rule of Xibalba, choosing champions to act in their stead. Hun-Kame chooses Casiopea while Vacub-Kame chooses her cousin, Martin, who was as belittled by their grandfather in Uukumil as Casiopea but found solace in belittling his poor cousin. There is no love loss between Casiopea and Martin.

My Thoughts?
Gods of Jade and Shadow is much more than a retelling of a mythic contest between two death gods, the lords of Xibalba. The novel is gloriously detailed in the setting, from the vibrant Jazz-era Mexico to the nightmarescape of the Underworld, Xibalba. The characters are rich and intriguing, the central message throughout Gods of Jade and Shadow is of the importance in maintaining balance. This central theme is reflected in the plot, and in the external and internal struggles of characters. The dream-like quality to the narration adds to making this novel feel like a classic myth, a dark fairytale and a joy to read.

The Conclusion:
Highly recommended! A glorious, dark folktale re-telling.

Short Stories, stories, Writing

Gothic Fiction & Victorian Science

I recently finished writing a short story continuing my fascination with Victorian science. I focused on the anatomical sciences that inspired many gothic and urban folklore of the Victorian era. Some of the most classic Victorian era gothic tales including Frankenstein and Dracula involve the unease in Victorian society about the dead, superstition, burial practices in an era governed by religion but embarking on the Enlightenment period. Into this societal unease came the expansion of the Sciences but also the Industrial Revolution. The challenges to mind, body and physical environment were no doubt confronting. My short story explored some of these concepts from the perspective of an anatomist tasked with examining a set of twisted bones returned from a disastrous archaeological excavation into an ancient limestone quarry purportedly cursed.

Short Stories, Writing

Forthcoming: Time-Travel Anthology

Tick Tock (Five Hundred Fiction, #1) from Black Hare Press is a new collection of flash fiction with each story inspired by the theme of time travel and exactly 500 words.

My flash fiction piece “Second Chances” is about a desperate escape from a battle-ruined future into an ancient past. Time-travel is not restricted to science-fiction with my flash fiction drawing on the folklore and mystery of standing stones and stone circles to transport people to other worlds or times.

Keep an eye out for more updates on release dates for Tick Tock and where to buy ebooks and paperbacks.