The Ikessar Falcon
by K. S. Villoso
640pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 10/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 5/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.28/5

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Although the bulk of my reading is speculative fiction because of its myriad worlds and endless possibilities, I primarily read for characters. In particular, I appreciate stories with characters so vividly multifaceted that I have complicated, difficult-to-articulate feelings about them—when I don’t simply love or hate them, when the way I think about them changes from moment to moment, when I’m left uncertain precisely what to think of them because they have decent qualities amidst glaring flaws or vice versa.

And a major reason I loved The Ikessar Falcon the way I did is that K. S. Villoso created characters eliciting just that reaction, filtered through the perspective of a protagonist who is far from perfect and frequently frustrating herself—and is one of the best-realized, well-written protagonists I’ve ever encountered.

The characterization and world expand masterfully from the foundation built in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the excellent first book in The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy and a shorter, more contained volume that nevertheless conveys a lot through its rich first-person narration. I was drawn into Queen Talyien’s story from the very first line, and I ended the book feeling that her voice was one of the strongest I’ve read.

Talyien’s personality comes through every page, and her complexity shines through her expressive, poetic narrative. I particularly loved how she made me question just how self-aware she truly was as she related her tale—fitting for someone who never had the chance to be herself or explore exactly who that person may be, given that the course of her life was shaped by her warlord father and his ambitions. Even though her father is long deceased by the start of the trilogy’s main plot, Talyien still carries the weight of attempting to live up to his expectations and legacy. It’s not until close to the beginning of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, after being separated from her guards overseas and meeting a kind-hearted conman (really!), that she gets to experience what it might be like to just be herself—not a queen, not a notorious warlord’s daughter, not the wife of the Dragonlord or the mother of the next Dragonlord, but simply Tali.

Tali’s confidence about the world and her place within it is further upended in The Ikessar Falcon. It picks up about three months after the previous novel with Tali in much the same situation we left her: far from home and unsure of when she’ll be able to return, worried about her son, and shaken by the realization that she may not have known her father or his plans very well after all. In this installment, Tali comes to understand that there is actually a lot she didn’t know as well as she had heretofore thought, including the husband with whom she was so desperate to reunite, her country, and her people. Though she’s well versed in warlord politics so she can fulfill the duty she’s had since birth—preventing civil war—she has not given much thought to the lives and needs of the common people. She neglected regions of her country, remaining oblivious to some rather large problems that had been developing there for some time, and though some of the blame for that falls on those who provided her with information, she also ignored several requests for meetings from those who live there.

Partially due to faults like these, I loved reading about Tali because she has depth that makes her seem real. As she’s often reminded throughout this novel, she’s not been a good ruler, and she has a habit of being oblivious to other people—such as forgetting that her guardswoman/cousin has a daughter and not even remembering the girl’s name or face after being reminded she gave her niece a gift for her last nameday. Yet when she does care, she loves fiercely and can be loyal to a fault, giving a second chance after a betrayal instead of doing what one may expect from a sword-wielding queen with her reputation. Tali doesn’t shy away from violence, especially defense of herself or others, but she’s not one to revel in bloodshed and cruelty, either.

Tali’s many layers make her a fascinating protagonist, as does the way she navigates a society that makes her feel powerless in a lot of ways despite literally being a queen. From the moment she was born, she’s had the weight of being the embodiment of peace on her shoulders and had people telling her how she must act and behave. She’s judged more harshly as a woman—instead of blaming her husband for leaving her and their child, people tend to blame her for not being a good enough wife to make him want to stay. And from her perspective, she does seem to be trying her best amid the huge mess she inherited.

At least, she seems to be trying her best some of the time. Though she’s certainly been left with a lot of problems created by previous rulers and their systems, some of her mess is of her own making, and there were certainly times I found Tali and her decisions intensely frustrating. But even when I wanted to yell at her for making a terrible choice, I wanted to applaud her author for her terrible choice because it felt so very true to Tali.

Overall, the characters are wonderfully done. The Ikessar Falcon is filled with complex people with a mixture of good and bad that made me feel complex emotions with a couple of exceptions: a despicable villain, and Khine, the aforementioned kind-hearted conman. Khine is my favorite secondary character and only frustrated me by not fleeing the chaos and destruction following in Tali’s wake when he deserved so much better.

Khine is also the only one of the three men who spend the most time in Tali’s company who did not make me want to throw the whole man away, but I really appreciated how the other two were written. Often, I’d find myself wondering why Tali put up with her former childhood friend turned guardsman and husband, though I understood she did for complicated reasons related to loyalty, guilt, and nostalgia. Then there would suddenly be a moment when seeing them through Tali’s eyes made me really understand—not in my head, but in my heart—why she put up with them. After spending the whole book loathing them, they’d show a different side of themselves or have such camaraderie with Tali that I’d find myself kind of liking them in spite of myself and realize it’s complicated. Everything in this story is complicated, even these fraught relationships with men who make me want to throw the whole man away.

Even the pacing ties into the characterization. As in the first book, I thought the most engaging parts were the more introspective ones and those focusing on Tali’s past, but I found the main storyline more compelling in this installment since it took some time to breathe and really show the world and characters. The faster pacing with Tali constantly jumping into situations was suitable for who she was at that point, and though a lot still happens in The Ikessar Falcon, it also allowed more time for reflection and getting the most out of a scene—just as Tali herself seems to be pausing to think a bit more at this point in her life.

The Ikessar Falcon is complex, character-driven fantasy at its very best, as it takes everything I loved about The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and expands on it to make both books stronger. Every conversation and description seems significant, it has more banter and revelations, and it also has more dragons and magic. But most importantly, for me as a reader, it’s about a protagonist who has me invested in her story, and I can hardly wait to read the rest of it in The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng (coming May 4).

My Rating: 10/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Ikessar Falcon

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

Reviews of Other Book(s) in The Chronicles of the Bitch Queen:

  1. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro