The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week brought two books to add to the TBR, but first, here’s what has been posted since the last one of these features in case you missed anything:

  • “Why Jack the Ripper?” — Katherine Addison discussed Jack the Ripper, who appears in her new fantasy novel, The Angel of the Crows. (The giveaway included in this post is over now, and I’ve heard from both winners.)
  • Review of The Obsidian Tower (Rooks and Ruin #1) by Melissa Caruso — This is the first book in a new epic fantasy series set in the same world as the Sword and Tower trilogy but focusing on different characters about 150 years later. Although it didn’t keep me hooked consistently during the first 20% or so, it ended up being the most engrossing, fun book I’ve read in some time.

And now, the new books!

The Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty - Book Cover

The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S. A. Chakraborty

The final book in S. A. Chakraborty’s wonderful Daevabad Trilogy was just released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook, large print edition). io9 has an excerpt from The Empire of Gold, and the Harper Collins website has an audio extract.

Harper Collins also has both text and audio samples from The City of Brass (the first book) and an audio sample from The Kingdom of Copper (the second book).

I pre-ordered the final book in this trilogy since I LOVED the second book, which was one of my favorite books of last year. (And if you too feel like you’ve forgotten some of the details since reading them, Recaptains has summaries of both The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper that I found helpful.)

 

The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

Tuyo by Rachel Neumeier - Cover Image

Tuyo (Tuyo #1) by Rachel Neumeier

Tuyo, Rachel Neumeier’s latest fantasy novel, was recently self published (trade paperback, ebook). The Kindle version is also currently available on Kindle Unlimited.

The author’s website contains an excerpt from Tuyo.

I’m excited to read this one, especially since I’ve enjoyed other books by Rachel Neumeier (especially House of Shadows!).

 

Raised a warrior in the harsh winter country, Ryo inGara has always been willing to die for his family and his tribe. When war erupts against the summer country, the prospect of death in battle seems imminent. But when his warleader leaves Ryo as a sacrifice — a tuyo — to die at the hands of their enemies, he faces a fate he never imagined.

Ryo’s captor, a lord of the summer country, may be an enemy . . . but far worse enemies are moving, with the current war nothing but the opening moves in a hidden game Ryo barely glimpses, a game in which all his people may be merely pawns. Suddenly Ryo finds his convictions overturned and his loyalties uncertain. Should he support the man who holds him prisoner, the only man who may be able to defeat their greater enemy? And even if he does, can he persuade his people to do the same?

The Obsidian Tower
by Melissa Caruso
528pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.07/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Obsidian Tower was easily one of my most anticipated books of this year after reading Melissa Caruso’s first trilogy, Swords and Fire (The Tethered MageThe Defiant HeirThe Unbound Empire), and I loved it as well. This novel is the first book in the Rooks and Ruin trilogy, a series with new characters set in the same world as Swords and Fire about 150 years after the end of the previous books. Given that, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to read the other three books before The Obsidian Tower. I would recommend it since they’re fantastic and I think having some familiarity with the world and history occasionally makes some of the details more interesting, but I don’t think there’s any reason not to start here if you’re especially drawn to this series or find it easier to get a hold of than the others. (In my opinion, this is also a stronger first volume, even though it did take longer to completely hook me than The Tethered Mage.)

There are two kinds of magic.

There is the kind that lifts you up and fills you with wonder, saving you when all is lost or opening doors to new worlds of possibility. And there is the kind that wrecks you, that shatters you, bitter in your mouth and jagged in your hand, breaking everything you touch.

Mine was the second kind.

As a Witch Lord’s granddaughter who inherited some of her power, Ryx should have life-sustaining magic. But instead of making plants and animals thrive, her magic kills everything—and everyone—she touches.

After her destructive power killed a man when she was just four years old, Ryx went to live with her grandmother. She learned to avoid stables and crowds and to dive out of the way if anyone came too near, and she walked a separate path through the castle to prevent others from accidentally bumping into her and dying. Many of her family members viewed her and her twisted vivomancy as a danger, and they were not at all pleased when Ryx came of age to become a Warden and was charged with protection of her grandmother’s castle—complete with the mysterious Black Tower their family has guarded for four thousand years, passing down the knowledge that “nothing must unseal the Door” from generation to generation.

Since she could not be a typical Warden due to exuding death, Ryx found another way to help her land and people: developing good relations with her mother’s homeland, the Serene Empire. After a few years of doing this diplomatic work, Ryx is trusted with negotiating peace between one of the Witch Lords and the Empire. This would be plenty difficult in and of itself considering the Shrike Lord is the one involved, but it’s even more challenging than expected when his ambassador/fiancée opens the Door to the Black Tower—but not for long, since she comes into contact with Ryx and dies when the castle’s Warden tries to prevent her from further meddling.

But the death of an ambassador betrothed to the Shrike Lord is only the beginning of Ryx’s problems. Her grandmother mysteriously disappears, her aunt annoyingly appears, negotiations continue with the brother of the now-vengeful Shrike Lord—and the more Ryx and a team of magical experts learn about the Black Tower, the more they fear the consequences of the Door being unsealed, even briefly.

The Obsidian Tower drew me in immediately with its opening lines (quoted above) and the following description of Ryx’s magic, but after that, how much it gripped me varied throughout the first 20% or so. It is decently paced from the start, but it also introduced a lot of different characters between the delegations showing up for peace negotiations, a team specializing in analyzing magical threats to the world tasked with examining the Door, a friend keeping an eye on events for their father, and curious, nosy, and/or domineering family members who don’t believe Ryx should be in charge. Plus there’s Whisper, a fox-like chimera who has resided in the castle for as long as anyone can remember and knows a lot of its secrets—but can’t share much of what he knows due to a promise he made. Many of these characters were intriguing (and how I loved Whisper), but I think making the acquaintance of so many of them is mainly why I felt the novel didn’t immediately hit its stride.

But once I was hooked, I was well and truly hooked. Even though I’ve been finding it difficult to get into books for the last few months, The Obsidian Tower kept me turning the pages long after I probably should have put it down to do chores or sleep. Best of all, it’s one of those rare books that kept me thinking about it even after I did manage to put it down, pondering all its various hints and mysteries. It’s filled with so many questions about who can be trusted and various characters’ agendas, the truth of both the Black Tower’s magic and Ryx’s own, and so much more. There are political and personal tensions, and the stakes keep increasing with new revelations about the Door and a murderer on the loose—and then Ryx’s situation keeps getting even more difficult and it keeps getting more and more riveting. It’s the most engrossing, fun book I’ve read in some time.

The writing style is denser than that of Swords and Fire, but it has the same sort of compulsively readable, engaging voice interspersed with amusing thoughts and dialogue as the previously published series. Ryx is an extremely sympathetic narrator since most of her family is unkind to her, fearing her unusual magic and what it could mean for their realm. She’s also lived a rather lonely life since she can’t get too close to anyone other than her grandmother or a powerful vivomancer who actively braces themselves against her magic, and the one time she considered courting someone as a teenager, her grandmother opposed the idea and sent the girl she cared for away. Her situation is a bit eerily familiar at this point in time since Ryx has basically been social distancing for her entire life: she’s had to avoid crowds, and if she does meet with others, she has to make sure she keeps some space between herself and them.

In addition to being about (unsuccessfully) trying to keep things at the castle under control, Ryx’s story is about figuring out who can and can’t be trusted and forging new friendships. In the process, she makes some rather large decisions that can almost seem rash, but I thought most of them made sense with the circumstances. (There was one choice she made toward the end that I thought seemed ill-considered, but I’m torn about whether or not that’s fair since I can also understand why she was in a rush to do something and why that would seem like the best option. I feel like she should have at least tried to find out more before making that kind of decision, but then, she was processing a vast amount of life-changing information while dealing with an overwhelming number of stressful incidents so maybe I should cut her some slack…)

There are also some great secondary characters, and it’s entertaining to read Ryx’s interactions with many of them. As already mentioned, I was especially fond of Whisper (talking animals/animal-like beings are usually a plus), and I was also particularly intrigued by Severin, the Shrike Lord’s brother who became his second representative in the peace talks after the death of the first. He’s one of those characters who seems as though he might have some hidden depths and may be able to be trusted…or maybe trusting him would be the biggest mistake one could make.

As much as I enjoyed many of the secondary characters, I did feel like they tended to fit a bit too neatly into certain boxes: the cousin who lived for dramatic entrances and speeches, the fighter who had to be restrained from stabbing people first and asking questions later, the awkward scholar who could endlessly babble on about his area of expertise, and so on. I rather like some of these types, especially the first two, but they didn’t have a lot of dimension and the way Ryx had a conversation about their pasts with each of her new friends seemed a bit formulaic.

But that’s a minor issue, considering how much fun I had with them and the mysteries that kept me reading. There is so much speculation fodder, and though many questions are answered by the end, there’s a lot more related to the bigger picture to explore in later books—the Black Tower and its history, why Ryx has the magic she does, more about Whisper’s origins after an intriguing revelation toward the end, and I would assume, why no one in the family except Ryx’s grandmother knew the truth about the Door. (The latter is nagging at me, but I also suspect there’s a reason she didn’t share the knowledge even if it seems like it would have been important for the Warden of the castle to know and could have saved a lot of trouble.)

It’s also impressive that this mainly takes place in one ancient castle showcasing a variety of previous Witch Lords’ tastes for things like bone decor, yet it still conveys a lot about the secondary fantasy world with people from different parts of the continent gathered together. Like Swords and Fire, it has a society with gender equality and LGBTQ acceptance, and societal inequality in Ryx’s country is mainly related to magical power.

Once again, Melissa Caruso has written a book that I found near impossible to put down. Even though it didn’t grip me immediately, The Obsidian Tower ended up being the most absorbing book I’ve encountered in quite a while. I can think of no better recommendation than that I was able to get lost in its pages at a time when I had been having great difficulty getting into any books—a remarkable feat at any time, but especially in the year 2020!

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Obsidian Tower

Today I’m thrilled to have a guest post by Katherine Addison to share with you! She’s the author of some of my most treasured fantasy books, The Goblin Emperor and the Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and she’s here to discuss the inclusion of Jack the Ripper in The Angel of the Crows, her latest fantasy novel. The Angel of the Crows is out in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook on June 23 (tomorrow!)—and I also have two hardcover copies to give away to two North American residents, courtesy of Tor Books!

 

Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison - Book Cover
Read an Excerpt

About THE ANGEL OF THE CROWS:

Katherine Addison, author of The Goblin Emperor, returns with The Angel of the Crows, a fantasy novel of alternate 1880s London, where killers stalk the night and the ultimate power is naming.

This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.

In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings in a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.

Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

Why Jack the Ripper?

Jack is not the first serial killer, or even the first “modern” serial killer, but he’s the one we remember. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important ones is his name. Not “the Whitechapel murderer” but “Jack the Ripper.” Someone was very cunning when they came up with that name. It’s short, punchy, imagination-catching. And the idea of a serial killer writing to the newspapers was new.

To be clear, I don’t think the Whitechapel murderer wrote the letter that starts “Dear Boss.” I don’t think he wrote any of the letters the police received (a couple hundred have survived, and there is a beautiful coffee-table-worthy book about them called Letters from Hell). I think people wrote letters to the police, some of them pretending to be the killer, because people do stupid stuff like that, and then someone got a bright idea.

“Someone” was probably a newspaper reporter or editor because the “Dear Boss” letter wasn’t sent to the police; it was sent to the Central News Agency. It was a publicity stunt. And to make it good, the writer not only claimed to be the Whitechapel murderer, but named him.

(The police fell for it hook, line, and sinker and reproduced the letter and postcard, placarding them in front of police stations, hoping someone would recognize the handwriting. So they were publicly authenticated as being really and truly from the Whitechapel murderer and led everyone off on a wild goose chase. The same thing happened again almost a hundred years later, during the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Someone sent the police a tape recording, and the police wasted countless hours and effort in trying to identify him, on the assumption that he was the Ripper. He wasn’t.)

The letter, and the follow-up postcard that starts, “I wasnt codding dear old Boss,” give the murderer a kind of style, a personality—an ugly personality, but a personality none the less. Something to hang your ideas about the murderer on. They’ve become so enmeshed in the story that even if you don’t believe in them, you call him Jack the Ripper.

And part of Jack’s enduring magnetism, if I can call it that, is that they didn’t catch him. No one ever saw him. To this day, nobody knows who he was. People have theories, and have been having theories since 1888—and the crazy theories about Jack the Ripper are also part of what keeps interest in him alive—but the theories have either been proven wrong or languish in the limbo of not being proven right.

I watched a true crime show about a guy pursuing the theory that one of the men who discovered Polly Nichols’ body was actually the killer. It is a very clever theory—and follows one of the precepts of both detective fiction and police investigation, that the person who finds the body is always suspicious—but is hobbled by the same problem as the other modern-day theories: the lack of a time machine to go back and ask the right people the right questions. Or to send a CSI team back to collect all the evidence we don’t have.

(Okay, obviously, with a working and reliable time machine, you could just go back to the night of one of the murders and wait for Jack to show up. Easy as pie.)

The terror Jack caused in 1888 was rooted in his crimes, the vicious bloody butchering murders of (at least) Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.  But part of the terror was that Jack the Ripper could be anybody. He wasn’t a crazed madman (although plenty of people thought he was), because a crazed madman would have been caught. This was a murderer who knew how to perform normalcy. The idea that the murderer could hide what he was, that someone could be both a brutal, bloody killer and an upright member of society, was both fascinating and profoundly upsetting—as it still is.

It is one of history’s odd coincidences—the sort of thing that’s too on-the-nose to put in a novel—that at the same time as the Whitechapel murders in 1888, a stage version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was being performed at the Lyceum Theatre in London. The relevance was as obvious then as it is today. (Someone even wrote to the police with the theory that the star of the play, Richard Mansfield, was the Whitechapel murderer; his performance was, perhaps, too convincing.)

Jack the Ripper has staying power. The name, the immediate mythologizing, the subsequent theorizing, (the tourism industry in Whitechapel, which also started in 1888), the unresolvable uncertainty: all these things keep Jack a household word. And they make a start—although they certainly don’t add up to an answer—on the question, Why Jack the Ripper?

Photo of Katherine AddisonPhoto Credit: Sheila Perry KATHERINE ADDISON’s short fiction has been selected by The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. She is the author of the Locus Award-winning novel The Goblin Emperor. As Sarah Monette, she is the author of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series and co-author, with Elizabeth Bear, of the Iskryne series. She lives near Madison, Wisconsin. You can find her on Twitter as @pennyvixen.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Angel of the Crows Giveaway.” One entry per household and two winners will be randomly selected. Those from North America are eligible to win. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Tuesday, June 30. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them after 24 hours has passed, a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Update: The giveaway has ended.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

This week’s new books include an upcoming science fiction novel and two Gothic fantasy novels, all of which sound fantastic!

There haven’t been any reviews since last weekend, but I’m hoping to wrap up the one I’ve been working on and post it this week. In any case, there will be a guest post and book giveaway tomorrow!

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson - Book Cover

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson’s science fiction debut novel, will be released on August 4 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

There doesn’t appear to be an excerpt available online yet, but Del Rey has a free ebook containing samples from this and other 2020 book releases (including the third book mentioned in this post).

 

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.

On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.

But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson - Book Cover

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, will be released on July 21 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). A sequel is scheduled for release in 2021.

An excerpt from The Year of the Witching is available on the Penguin Random House website.

 

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.

But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.

Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Book Cover

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s next novel, Mexican Gothic, will be released on June 30 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). I very much enjoyed her novel Gods of Jade and Shadow, which merged 1920s Mexico with Mayan mythology, and am excited to read more of her work!

Entertainment Weekly has an excerpt from Mexican Gothic.

 

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic artistocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .

From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico—“fans of classic novels like Jane Eyre and Rebecca are in for a suspenseful treat” (PopSugar).

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week I purchased a book that sounds fantastic, and I reviewed one of my new favorite books since the last time there was one of these posts:

Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron - Book Cover

Kingdom of Souls (Kingdom of Souls #1) by Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls is currently available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook (with the paperback coming on August 11), and the ebook is currently $1.99 on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’ve had my eye on this one so I couldn’t resist getting a copy!

Epic Reads has an excerpt from Kingdom of Souls, and there is a website with more information on this YA fantasy series and world.

Reaper of Souls, the second book in the series, is scheduled for release on February 16, 2021.

 

A girl with no gifts must bargain for the power to fight her own mother’s dark schemes—even if the price is her life.

Crackling with dark magic, unspeakable betrayal, and daring twists you won’t see coming, this explosive YA fantasy debut is a can’t-miss, high-stakes epic perfect for fans of Strange the Dreamer and Children of Blood and Bone.

“Magnetic and addictive. This book is black girl magic at its finest.”—New York Times bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton

Heir to two lines of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. Yet she fails at bone magic, fails to call upon her ancestors, and fails to live up to her family’s legacy. Under the disapproving eye of her mother, the Kingdom’s most powerful priestess and seer, she fears she may never be good enough.

But when the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, Arrah is desperate enough to turn to a forbidden, dangerous ritual. If she has no magic of her own, she’ll have to buy it—by trading away years of her own life.

Arrah’s borrowed power reveals a nightmarish betrayal, and on its heels, a rising tide of darkness that threatens to consume her and all those she loves. She must race to unravel a twisted and deadly scheme… before the fight costs more than she can afford.

Set in a richly imagined world inspired by whispered tales of voodoo and folk magic, Rena Barron’s captivating debut is the beginning of a thrilling saga about a girl caught between gods, monsters, and the gift and the curse of power.

“Masterful.”—SLJ (starred review)

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
by K. S. Villoso
496pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 9/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.25/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.86/5
 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Thus opens The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first installment in K. S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy. Both this and the second book in this series, set in an epic fantasy world whose “worldbuilding is a love letter to the Philippines,” were originally self published, and the entire trilogy is now being traditionally published with this novel currently available, The Ikessar Falcon coming in September, and the brand new conclusion scheduled for release next year.

This relatively short wait between books makes me happy since The Wolf of Oren-Yaro hooked me from that very first sentence and ended up being exactly what I love to read: a character-driven novel with a vivid voice and suspense involving characters’ pasts and what shaped them. The main character has some secrets and learns of some, and much about her and the world are gradually revealed over the course of the novel.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is narrated from the first person perspective of Queen Talyien (Tali), a warlord’s daughter whose birth and near-immediate betrothal to the young son of her father’s enemy was instrumental in ending a civil war. The night before Tali and her husband were to be crowned, he fled, leaving her and their two-year-old son behind. Tali was crowned queen without her king, left to shoulder the responsibility of ruling and keeping the warlords from tearing her country asunder without him, hounded by guilt with her son wishing to know when his father will return. Though her people do not know what happened between their queen and her husband, rumors spread and Tali is blamed for his departure—for not being more feminine, more subtle, more pleasing, more in every way so her prince would never so much as dreamed of leaving her side.

Five years after becoming queen, Tali receives a message from her husband requesting that she meet him in a land across the sea. Her adviser suggests that she ignore his request: it must be a trap, and it’s hardly reasonable for her husband to ask her to travel so far to see him after abandoning her for five years. But Tali believes it’s worth considering, realizing that the warlords will see it as proof that it’s her fault he left and claim she wants the crown all to herself if they hear she refused to meet with him. She decides to go regardless of any potential danger when her son asks her to bring back his father.

After the sea voyage, everything seems to go wrong. Tali just barely makes it to the meeting with her husband—a rather uncomfortable dinner filled with barbed comments and accusations regarding whose father started a war and whose uncle released a mad dragon into their land—and things only get worse when assassins attack during their awkward reconciliation. Tali escapes, but she finds herself separated from her guards and traveling companions, all alone in a country with very different unspoken rules from her own, not knowing who attempted to take her life or why—or if her husband or anyone else made it out alive.

Voice can make or break a book for me. It’s usually voice that pulls me into a story and makes me want to keep reading, and I’m finding more and more that I rapidly lose interest in reading stories that don’t have strong voices. The number one reason I put down a book and pick up another in its stead is bland writing that lacks any sort of personality or style bringing its characters, world, and events vividly to life.

It’s difficult to put into words just what precisely makes a voice work, but The Wolf of Oren-Yaro has one that works—one of the best I’ve ever encountered. Tali’s expressive, often poetic, flowing narrative carried me into the story and her psyche, made the world and surroundings real, and were a big part of what made this novel so engaging. It contains quite a bit of telling and flashbacks, but I actually enjoyed those parts most of all: they made the story richer by showing glimpses into the culture and events that shaped Tali, and they never seemed overlong or dull because of her compelling voice and the way they tied into her characterization.

Tali is a complex, messy character who is in a difficult position after inheriting her father’s domain and problems. She’s had to be more ruthless to maintain a fearsome reputation and hold the realm together, but that’s not who she is at heart—that was her father’s nature, not hers, even if she ended up stuck with the consequences of his warmongering and ambitions. Most fascinating of all, Tali didn’t seem completely reliable as a narrator. Other than holding back the details of the murder and fallout with her husband until close to the end, she bares her heart through her narrative, yet I found myself questioning just how much of what she thinks and feels is true—and just how much she’s keeping hidden from herself in order to cope with the path laid out for her shortly after she was born. She often reflects on her love for Rayyel, her husband, but she also thinks of him as being “about as charismatic as the bottom of a chamber pot” in one of her earlier reflections. Of course, it’s possible she can love someone while recognizing they have flaws, but the more I read, the more I wondered: Does she love him? Or has she just convinced herself she loves him because she had to marry him whether she liked it or not? What else might she be lying to herself about? I found Tali all the more captivating because I felt like she thought she was being truthful, but I was unsure about just how self-aware and honest with herself she was being.

As a rash and reckless person, Tali makes some questionable (ok, fine, terrible) decisions, but I thought that her choices fit with her personality, how much she values duty and family, and all that she has to try to balance as a ruler, wife, mother, and the bearer of her father’s legacy. Plus, sometimes she doesn’t have a lot of great choices, having been attacked by mysterious assassins and left to fend for herself in a foreign country without any friends or money. Tali is resourceful and a total badass with a sword, and she proves to be good at getting herself out of trouble—and then getting herself right back into trouble, starting the cycle of disaster all over again. Her tendency to dive headfirst into things may be anxiety-inducing, but it does create excitement and drama that make for a riveting reading experience.

Although this is a character-driven novel, I did feel like Tali’s adventures moved too quickly sometimes and didn’t allow enough space to give the other characters much depth, despite them being well done for the amount we saw of them. This is true to Tali’s character since she’s not the type to sit back and wait for things to happen, but I think that’s part of why I was partial to stories from her past over the more recent timeline. Even though Rayyel rarely appears outside of Tali’s memories, he’s one of the better developed characters in the story, and the only other character who seemed particularly fleshed out was a man Tali met after being separated from her people: Khine, a self-confessed con man with a moral code who is actually the most innately kind person in the book.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is an excellent fantasy novel and a new favorite of mine, largely because of its protagonist and her superb voice—and the way the details of the world and events come to life through her perspective. I absolutely loved it, and I can hardly wait for The Ikessar Falcon later this year.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Read K. S. Villoso’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Queen Talyien