“They called me “bitch”, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”
Queen Talyien is a woman devoted to her people and her duty. In this case, that duty is to marry the Ikessar heir, Rayyel, and unite their war-torn lands. She bears the burden placed upon her by her father, whose warmongering was largely responsible for creating the divides that still threaten the well-being of the nation.
However, Rayyel had other ideas. Without warning, the night before their Coronation, he left behind both Talyien and her shattered hopes of peace and prosperity for the future. The warlords of the land lie in wait to pounce upon any weakness.
After five years of struggling alone to rule over a people who dislike and mistrust her, Talyien receives a request from Rayyel to meet with him in the Empire of Ziri-nar-Orxiar. Hopeful of reconciliation (and knowing her refusal would, at best, result in more scorn and blame being heaped upon her), she heads out to meet him in secret, taking only her most trusted guards and advisors.
During their tense negotiations, they are met with an assassination attempt that plunges them into total chaos. The Queen must survive a hostile land and find a way to rescue her husband – but who sent the assassins?
Queen Talyien/Tali – Our first person PoV. A dutiful but severe personality, she is desperate to do what is best for her country and her child. Weary of the insincerity that plagues her life, she frequently uses stinging words as armor and craves companionship.
Rayyel/Rae – Talyien’s husband, a charming and ambitious royal with his own ideas about how the land should be governed. Seen through Talyien’s eyes, our understanding of his motivations is colored by hers.
Khine – A lovable rogue/confidence trickster who meets Talyien on the streets.
Zhu – An interesting parallel character who is not dissimilar to the Queen, but handles her own situation very differently.
Yuebeck – Hands down, one of the most unsettling characters I have read in recent years. I’m going to let you discover him for yourselves.
Having read and enjoyed Villoso’s Agartes Epilogues, it’s difficult not to make a comparison, particularly since this novel is set in the same world a few decades later. It’s very much independent of the first trilogy, however, and an excellent jumping off point. Where Jaeth’s Eye is challenging and sometimes cryptic, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is extremely accessible – for that reason, if you’re new to Villoso’s work I highly recommend making it your entry point.
The world-building, as always, is one of her greatest strengths – frequently when writers set subsequent trilogies in an existing world, they rest on the laurels of the work they have done previously. This can sometimes lead to a patchy and unsatisfying read unless you are familiar with the original novels. I’m pleased to say that is definitely not the case here – small touches everywhere let you know that this is a deep and nuanced world that doesn’t end when the protagonist leaves the room. There are religions, customs and even local dishes that ring true and don’t need to be explained to us in depth – their existence adds flavor and just the right amount of mystery to the world, allowing us to share in Talyien’s apprehension at being stranded in a place unfamiliar to her. It’s also refreshing to be outside of pseudo-medieval Europe. Villoso draws inspiration from a number of sources, most notably her Filipino background, which contributes to the feeling that her tale is something a little different in a sea of farm boy adventures.
The pacing is sometimes breathless – watching Talyien lurch from one disaster to the next was both entertaining and anxiety-inducing, but Villoso manages to give us plenty of room for introspection and character development. We’re seeing everything from Talyien’s point of view, but she’s written skilfully – I rooted for and liked her something fierce, but I was also able to see how her prickly nature turned off some of the characters she interacted with. Her point of view made it extremely easy to empathize with her and see what it was about these interactions that had raised her hackles in the first place. When faced with sincerity, her mixture of confusion, suspicion and yearning damn near broke my heart. Her chemistry and lively dialogue with Khine in particular was a joy to read, and their con-artist escapades were great fun. It gave the story a bit of levity right when it was needed, and I hope to see more of them together.
The real standout to me throughout was the backstory of the betrothal of Tali and Rae – I grew incredibly invested in the lives of the two children and their changing attitudes, their growing friendship and fondness for one another. The wild young girl’s blossoming love for Rayyel and her growing insecurities made for a great read, and an excellent setup. As a result, the scene in which Talyien begins to reveal what went wrong between them left me open mouthed and frantically trying to read faster – in my mind, it was an absolute masterclass in leaving the reader wanting more.
Overall, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a deeply personal and thoughtful tale of love, betrayal and the aftermath – at the same time, it’s a thrill ride that keeps you guessing until the end, full of exciting plot twists and twist subversions. The emotional depth of the characters, their motivations and their plausibility are all on point. Combined with an engaging story and its world full of rich and interesting cultures, this one is a winner. I genuinely believe that this will be Villoso’s breakthrough novel and I can’t wait for the next entry.
Fantasy Bingo 2017 Squares
- AMA Author