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

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“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