Author: K.S. Villoso
Series: Annals of the Bitch Queen (Book One)
Publisher: Liam’s Vigil
Publication Date: January 2018
Format: Kindle Edition
Let me start by saying I’m a bad, bad book blogger and should be punished for how bad I am. I read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro in September as part of Self-Published Fantasy Month here on Off The TBR. SEPTEMBER. The book had already been out four 9 months. It’s been five more months. The book has now been out over a year. Book two has already been published and has been out for ten months. And I’m just now getting around to posting this review. It’s been so long I will miss important details and points because I didn’t take notes and the review won’t be up to my usual standard. This book is good and deserving of a detailed review. Really good in fact. I suck.
Now that I’ve got some self-flagellation out of the way let me tell you something about this beautiful book. Because of what I mentioned above this review won’t follow my usual format and may not be as detailed as usual. (Some of you will like that).
“I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”
Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-yaro, Queen Talyien’s life unfolded like a storybook. The shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart, her marriage to Rayyel, the son of her father’s rival, spoke of peaceful days to come.
But all storybooks must end. Rayyel’s sudden departure before their reign began created fractures that left the land as divided as ever.
Years later, Talyien receives a message from Rayyel, urging her to meet with him across the sea. An assassination attempt interrupts Talyien’s quest for reconciliation, sending the queen struggling in a strange and dangerous land. With betrayals in every twist and turn, she is forced to enlist the help of a con-artist to survive and save her husband from the clutches of those who would seek to use him for their gain… if he would let her.
Oof…this book. There was so much I enjoyed. If you read reviews of her work you’ll quickly discover K.S. Villoso apparently has a knack for writing really good character driven novels. Novels that make you fall in love with a character one minute and make you want to throttle them then next. You also apparently can’t read one of her novels without wanting to yell at her for what she does to her characters, or what she makes them do. In The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the protaganist Queen Talyien, or Tali, is no exception.
Tali is Queen of Jin-Sayeng, a nation made up of multiple warring clans that were brought together under the rule of her father. Tali’s father negotiated a wedding between Tali and the heir to the Ikessar clan. Perfect plan right? What could go wrong? Apparently everything.
Like any real queen (I’m sure), Tali is a mixed bag of feelings and personalities and roles. She was a daughter to her father, no matter what his role or title, and she was the heir to the throne. She is a woman of the Oren-Yaro, and she is also queen. She was a wife, and she was also…well, queen. She wants to love and be loved, and she wants (or needs) to be feared. Villoso writes Tali keeping all these dual roles in mind. And it’s these dual roles of ordinary person and ruler that make you want to love her and want to smack her upside the head because she has to be both. Tali wants to be all of these, needs to be all of them in fact, and therein is the conflict within her. A conflict that spills out into everything she does. She wants to be a daughter, a woman, and a wife, but the dictates of ruling and holding her nation together require she put them aside and be a monarch, one who is ruthless and cunning, one who must be feared by her rivals if she is to reign, one who is fine being known as The Bitch Queen who likes to lop off people’s heads.
We learn bits and pieces of Tali’s past slowly as the novel progresses. But things are troubled at the outset. On page one we learn she’s killed a man and she doesn’t regret it. She regrets certain things about how he died, and most importantly she regrets not stopping her husband from leaving because of it, right before they were to take the throne together. The question of why he left hangs over the story from beginning to end. Bits and pieces are revealed, and throughout we see Tali’s regret about something she did or perhaps didn’t do. It shapes all of her actions in the story and generates an inner conflict that influences the outer one. As we learn more of her past it’s easy to love her, to feel for her and the situation in which she’s been placed, and then all of a sudden, “dammit Tali what the hell were you thinking!?” And because we don’t know all the details there’s a constant question of whether her actions were really necessary, or whether her methods are really the best. It creates a character with whom we are conflicted as a reader. Should we love her or not? This is a question that remains all the way to the very last page and leaves you pondering what makes a good character and why. Because you know Tali is well written, you know there’s conflict and tension, and development, and you know deep down you love her…yet you wonder why.
Lest you think this is only a character driven book let me say the story will hook you and keep you guessing. Yes you’ll be guessing at all the crap in Tali’s past and how it has influenced the present that I’ve already hinted at, but you’ll also be guessing at how who in the present is out to get her, who is trying to kill her, who is trying to destabilize her kingdom (or queendom…why don’t we see that word?), who can she trust? All of these questions keep the story moving because Tali doesn’t know the answer either and needs to discover the truth in order to save herself from imprisonment and death, and her people from further war.
It’s a story of betrayal, and lies, and deceit that drags Tali to a foreign land without the knowledge of most of her court or the nobility. After the assassination attempt Tali finds herself cut off from her advisers and bodyguards. Alone and hunted in a new city she must find her way back to her people and discover who is out to kill her and why. She must hide her identity and navigate the paths between con-artists, crime lords, and royal governors and emissaries, while trying to save herself and reconcile with her husband…who may be the one who wants her dead.
Like I said, it’s a good story.
Something else I really liked about The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the setting. I really enjoy European based fantasy, but I’ve been aching to read some good non-western stories. This was a goal of mine in 2018, to find and read more non-western fantasy (they are there, I just hadn’t read them). We’ve seen a lot in recent years about “own voices” and Villoso is a great example of an author gifting us with great stories in non-traditional settings influenced by the culture she was born into. Villoso is from the Philippines and has imbued the story with the culture of her homeland. I studied history in college and I must admit now that one area in which I’m severely lacking in knowledge is Asian history in general. And outside of events in World War II or the Spanish American War, I know next to nothing of the Philippines except for what I remember of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the 80’s. I make a point of saying that because I’m willing to bet most Americans are like me…severely lacking in any understanding of Filipino history and culture. And while this is a fantasy novel not a historical or cultural textbook, it is a window into the inner self of an author who you can tell is pouring her soul and the stories of her home into her book. As an American descended from Europeans my stories are something different. There is much I’m sure I missed in the details of Villoso’s writing but I could tell it was genuine, and it took me on a journey somewhere I’ve never been, to encounter new lands, meet new peoples, and experience new things.
I loved The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. I was drawn in from the very first page and didn’t want to set it down. If you like really good character driven novels that are filled with betrayal, mystery and great action well this is a book you need to read. If you’re looking for really good non-western fantasy this is a book you need to read. If you want a book with “the feels” this is a book you need to read. Hell, if your criteria is just, “give me some damn good fantasy” this is a book you need to read.
4.5 of 5 Stars
Addendum: As I was finishing up this review Villoso posted some fantastic news to her blog. Book two, The Ikessar Falcon is being pulled down for edits and not available online anymore. Yeah I know that doesn’t sound fantastic, but there’s a reason. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and it’s sequels will soon (not sure when) be published by Orbit Books. For more details check out Villoso’s post here.