*[Thank you to the lovely team at Orbit for gifting me this book, in exchange for an honest review]
There is something incredibly refreshing about K.S Villoso’s debut epic fantasy novel The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first installment in the brilliantly titled Chronicles of the Bitch Queen. In a market arguably saturated with European faux-medieval epic fantasy books, the setting of this novel – heavily inspired from Villoso growing up in the Philippines – is a vibrant and welcome addition to the genre. From the way in which the language, food, or various cultures are depicted, to the historical lore and stories that pepper their way through the main story, the world of this novel is one that teems with life and character.
It follows Queen Talyien, the Dragonlord of Jin-Sayeng and Wolf of Oren-Yaro, as she goes to meet with her estranged husband Rayyel Ikessar five years after he mysteriously abandoned her the night before their coronation. However, the plans quickly disintegrate and during her visit Talyien finds herself the target of an assassination which almost kills her. Friendless and alone in a strange city, and abandoned by those she once trusted, the story charts her journey to try and find her husband, and moreover uncover the identity of those who tried to kill her.
“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me”
For an introspective character-driven novel like this, it benefits from having a well-rounded and complex character at its head. Queen Talyien, the “Bitch Queen of Oren-Yaro ” is arrogant, brash, and proud, brought up amongst privilege and the daughter of a fearsome and brutal warlord from the Oren-Yaro clan. But she is also a woman who, for all her titles, is still very much human.
Villoso is careful to depict her protagonist so that we see her strengths and flaws as believable, and so we buy into her as a protagonist. She is anxious, conflicted, and afraid of where she currently finds herself, but she is also brave and stubborn. In fact, Talyien’s emotional introspection about her situation and those she cares for strengthens the character, adding a surprising extra layer of pathos and depth as the novel progresses.
“Wolves ran in packs, and lone wolves didn’t live for very long. However I looked at it, I was on my own.”
Of course, the supporting characters do much to aid the novel, even if some are more believable than others. From people in Talyien’s past, to those who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in her current travels, their connections to the Bitch Queen seem for the most part convincing and real. The character of Khine the penniless good hearted con-man, whilst a welcome breath of fresh air in what can seem to be an inescapably dark narrative, is at times a little too conveniently placed for him to seem convincing. But perhaps that is the point of this novel, that you – along with Talyien – are supposed to question everyone and everything.
Indeed, even in this murky grey world of corruption, murder, and shady moralistic choices, Villoso still manages to deliver up a spine-tinglingly grotesque antagonist, despite only making his appearance in the last third of the book. This character’s description and actions actively made my skin crawl, and so superbly adds to the impending claustrophobic tension that is increased throughout.
The resultant atmosphere is one that makes for a suspenseful and well-paced narrative that teeters on a cliff edge between being an action-packed thriller, and a slower intriguing mystery as Talyien tries to evade capture and figure out just who she can trust. However, mention has to be made of the description of the food – something that I felt particularly stood out about about this novel. Not only did it make me wish I could replicate the food described, it did much to cement the world as real and palpable in my mind (and made for a colourful, flavourful change, separate from your typical fantasy meal fare of meat and some sort of cheese).
“A wolf of Oren-yaro fights to make it right, down to the last breath. A wolf of Oren-yaro does not beg. A wolf of Oren-yaro suffers in silence”
Yet, there’s a lot more going on in this novel that Villoso doesn’t delve into and there are places where the story and the lore becomes a little too saturated by its own richness. There are so many names of clans and peoples, history, stories, and monsters (I particularly liked the lore about the dragons who were said to roam the northern lands but who we hardly see) all bubbling away that made me want to find out more. But seeing as this is the first part in a series, I can only imagine that any loose threads will be picked up and focused on in later books.
In fact, the resultant pay-off towards the end is worth the denser, and sometimes confusing, earlier parts of the novel. The final 100 pages or so are where most of the questions are answered, character’s motives and identities are questioned, and in a world that seems murky and grey, a stark and unnerving revelation comes to the fore that shows you the story is only just beginning.
Taylien continues to fight, and if there’s anything you learn from reading this novel, despite the oppressive turn of events that seep in and try to smother the bitch Queen, is that this particular wolf does not do well in a cage.
A rich and expansive novel, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a brilliant opening book to what promises to be a uniquely epic series, and well worth your time if you’re looking for a vivid change of setting for your next fantasy novel fix.
To be released on the 6th February 2020 (published by Orbit Books) this is a book you won’t want to miss.
Don’t want to wait? Read a segment of the book here.