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Posted on 6 Sep 2022 in Fiction, SFF |

JULIET MARILLIER A Dance with Fate and A Song of Flight. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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Juliet Marillier’s Warrior Bards series is a joy to read and has a lot to say about tolerance.

I remember the times when Brocc and I played and sang for weddings and festivals. That feels so long ago. Before Swan Island. Before I met Dau … A different world. But it’s the same world, of course, just as I’m singing some of the same songs. We’re the ones who have changed.

Juliet Marillier’s latest Warrior Bards novels are a joy to read, set in ancient Ireland and the fey Otherworld and full of the magic of Irish folklore. For those looking for them, there are references to Marillier’s previous series, lending extra depth to her world-building and characterisations, though if you haven’t yet read the Blackthorn and Grim series (Book 1 is reviewed here, and Book 3, here) you might want to before starting this one to avoid spoilers.

In The Harp of Kings, the first book of the Warrior Bards series, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau are sent on their first undercover mission as Swan Island warriors in training. These three characters return as the narrators in the second novel, A Dance with Fate. Liobhan and Dau have just completed their training. However, a display of their skills to celebrate their new status ends in disaster when Dau trips, hitting his head and losing his sight, perhaps forever.

A distraught and guilt-ridden Liobhan gets caught up in a dispute with Dau’s family, who are suddenly concerned with his welfare. During a legal mediation it is decided that Dau will return to his family’s holding at Oakhill to be cared for. In recompense for Dau’s injury, Liobhan must swear to be the family’s bond-servant, the lowest of the low in their household, for one year.

Despite needing to keep her head down or risk the consequences, Liobhan senses a mystery at Oakhill. Her first priority is to help Dau recover from his deep depression in whatever way she can. But this mystery may be one that she cannot afford to leave alone, for both their sakes.

As in The Harp of Kings, the three characters have distinct first-person voices, and this continues throughout the series. On the very first page of the second book, A Dance with Fate, it’s clear Liobhan’s direct, pragmatic voice is tinged with sadness whenever she thinks of her brother Brocc and the vast distance separating them. Likewise, when Brocc thinks of Liobhan and what she might say or do in his situation, he sounds more forthright and direct.

There is always a keen attention to detail in Marillier’s books and this series is no exception, down to how Liobhan deals with her long hair – which is important for her undercover work for Swan Island – during combat.

Marillier also often includes characters who have disabilities, contrasting the different ways they are treated. In this story, Dau’s family wish to humiliate him for becoming blind and a ‘burden’. Dau observes:

My brother has decided I am no longer a man. I deduce this from the fact that he does not speak to me direct … If he needs to communicate something to me, he speaks to Liobhan. Only it’s not a request or suggestion, it’s a barked-out order of some kind, and he doesn’t use her name … Every time he speaks, the old hate wells up in me. But I hear Liobhan respond with scrupulous politeness – I bet the blind man is the only one who can tell she’s fuming – and I feel obliged to match that.

Liobhan, however, wishes to look out for him, and to ensure that he can still feel useful and have as much autonomy as possible, even as he laments that he cannot do everything he used to be able to do.

The world of Warrior Bards includes characters with a diverse range of religious beliefs, and has a strong message of tolerance and understanding, rather than hate. People who believe in completely different things can still get along in Marillier’s books.

It was also refreshing to see a character having doubts during her pregnancy about how she will cope with becoming a mother, without being painted as a fundamentally flawed individual. Pregnancy isn’t glamourised, which is a breath of fresh air.

In Book 3, A Song of Flight, Prince Aolu of Dalriada has been kidnapped and his bodyguard, Liobhan’s brother Galen, is injured and left for dead. Initially, Liobhan is frustrated at not being allowed to be part of the Swan Island team sent out to chase leads about Aolu’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, Brocc’s continued attempts to understand the violent and changeable Crow Folk strain his relationships with others. This sees him face his most trying experience yet and threatens the life of the person he loves most.

When the mystery of the kidnapping deepens and no ransom demands are made for the Prince, Liobhan is finally sent out. As she seeks answers about the Prince’s abduction, and Brocc unravels  the story of the Crow Folk, the two stories become entwined, and Liobhan will find her loyalties torn and risk her future as a Swan Island warrior to uncover the truth.

Prince Aolu and Galen provide additional distinct voices to this story, with occasional chapters from each of their points of view. One of the things I’ve loved about Marillier’s most recent series is how the different characters retain such individual voices, while still having Marillier’s  distinctive, lyrical prose for descriptions:

… during her time off, she can often be found down on the shore with the young ones, looking for special stones or teaching them how to stand on their hands. Or she’ll be sitting on the upturned rowboat listening as a small boy or girl tells her something of great import, such as the discovery of a shell that looks like the full moon …

Compared to some of Marillier’s other work, these two books seemed a bit simpler plot-wise. This is not a criticism, as they are thoroughly enjoyable regardless and not every book needs to trick me. That said, it seems she was busy setting up the plot for A Song of Flight, which certainly kept me guessing for a good while. This book also makes fun of itself for a convenient but somewhat unlikely event that moves the plot forward. I rather appreciated that.

My only gripe is that the pronunciation guides for both books aren’t as kind as some of the previous ones. How to pronounce the name Flidais, for example, was given in Dreamer’s Pool (Book 1 of Blackthorn and Grim) but not in A Song of Flight. It can be great fun trying to guess words but it helps to be able to check without resorting to the internet.

These are beautiful books and are well worth reading. They have a lot to say about tolerance and the poison that is hate.

Juliet Marillier A Dance with Fate Pan Macmillan 2020, PB 420pp RRP $32.99

Juliet Marillier A Song of Flight Pan Macmillan 2021 PB 384pp RRP $32.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology and currently works as a tutor.

You can buy the Warrior Bards series from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy them from Booktopia.

You can also check if they are available from Newtown Library.

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