I have to admit at the outset that I’ve already reviewed this book. I first read the self-published version back in September of 2018. I loved that book. So why am I reviewing it again and so soon? Well, because the good folks over at Orbit discovered this little gem, and being a publisher that recognizes there’s some really great self-published fantasy out there these days they apparently asked K.S. Villoso if they could publish it too.
Orbit didn’t just buy Kay’s manuscript and slap their logo on it. They made her do a little work as well. This new edition features more editing and some new material not found in the original. Orbit also gave it a badass new cover with a fierce-as-fuck Queen Talyien looking like she’s ready to cut all comers. (credit to Simon Goinard for the illustration, and the fabulous Lauren Panepinto for cover design)
The core of this new edition is the same story as the original so I don’t really have lots to change from my first review. What follows is that previous review with some added edits for things I realized I left out and comments for the new edition.
“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 was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father’s rival heralds peaceful days to come.
But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair.
Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It’s meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she’s on her own as she struggles to fight her way home” – Goodreads blurb.
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 is a wife and mother, and she is 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, and a mother, 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.
Tali is naive and vulnerable. This stems in part from her upbringing, and in part because as an adult she still wants to believe in the fairy tales she loved as a child. This outlook and perspective clashes with the reality of her life as queen, and the realities of life outside her realm. When she travels to the Empire to meet her husband the realities of life in the wider world smack her in the face, a world where nobody cares who she is, a world that looks down upon her nation, a world where commoners live very differently than the nobility, and a world where the expectations people have for you may not be what you thought they were. Tali is forced to adapt, survive, and and mature. Along the way she begins to discover who she really is and what she really wants…well she discovers it by the end.
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 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.
Along the way we are introduced to other characters. Among them is Arro, Tali’s oldest adviser, and Nor her captain of the guard, both characters who are there to serve, advise, and protect. There’s Agos her former captain of the guard and childhood friend who she suddenly sent away. There’s Han Lo Bahn, a local crime boss who wants Tali as his mistress. There’s Rayyel her husband, an aloof scholar and heir to his family’s claim to the Dragon Throne who abandons his wife and duties and then disappears leaving Tali to hold things together in a land still on the verge of civil war. And then there’s Khine, a mysterious con-artist whom Tali must determine is an ally or enemy in a foreign land where there is nobody she can trust.
Like I said, it’s a good story.
If you’re a fan of romance you’ll enjoy this one too. I must admit I don’t read much romance so I’m not the expert here, and this book doesn’t smack you in the face with it, but it’s there nonetheless. What made the romantic elements in this book so good in my opinion was the subtlety with which it is presented. I should be careful with that word subtlety because it isn’t that Villoso is trying to hide the romance, it’s just that it, like everything else in Tali’s life, has to take a back seat to her role as queen. What makes the romance in this book compelling is that Tali yearns for love and companionship (from friends and from lovers), that it has to force its way past the walls she’s put up, and that she begins to question who she loves and doesn’t or who loves her and doesn’t. You the reader will see it even when Tali doesn’t want to admit it. And odds are you’ll be rooting for one particular individual.
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. They are out there, I just haven’t read many of 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 haven’t said much about the additional scenes in this Orbit edition. Overall they don’t change much of the story. It has the same basic beginning, middle, and end. What they do is flesh out some of the details a little more, add some insight into events of the past not in the other version, provide some additional context to character motivations and actions, and perhaps help to set-up events in future books. They are definitely a positive addition to the story.
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.
Note: I was sent an ARC of this book by the publisher.
4.5 of 5 Stars
Author: K.S. Villoso
Series: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen (Book One)
Publication Date: February 18, 2020
Format: ARC Paperback