On the eve of her coronation, the Bitch Queen Talyien murdered a man and mislaid her husband. Now the fragile peace of Jin-Sayeng may depend on whether she can bring him home. But the fugitive Dragonlord has ideas of his own…
I took a while to latch on to The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. You know how it goes – sometimes you’re not really hooked, but you can’t really find a fault either. Wolf kept doing just enough to keep me from putting it aside… and when I did put it down (to make tea, tch, what were you thinking), I’d see the spectacular cover art. I wanted to know that woman’s story, even though it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. So I’d pick it up again.
So what did I expect? Something more action-oriented, perhaps. Certainly a protagonist who was more confident and quicker to draw her sword. Instead, Talyien – hot-headed, unsubtle, painfully naïve – is surprisingly vulnerable: a Queen who has ruled alone since her husband deserted her on the night of their coronation (for reasons, which aren’t initially disclosed). Narrated in first person, we see her enduring – and unexpected – love for Rayyel and her lingering hurt that he left rather than try to mend the rift between them.
After five years’ silence, Rai has invited her to a foreign empire to discuss terms. Where her wayward husband is a guest of the Governor, Talyien finds herself a beggar queen – doors closed to her retinue because racism; unreliable allies offering a hand that may pull her within reach of their blades. In Anzhao, everybody wants something. Talyien mostly wants her husband back.
However much she wants Rai home, she’s proud and angry – and conscious of her duty to her country. Their marriage was arranged to end a civil war; their separation hasn’t quite divided the country (although given what we see of Talyien’s intuition and political skills, I’m not sure how), but Rayyel’s proposition will – permanently. If the assassins who break in on their stormy dinner don’t kill them both first.
I was about halfway through The Wolf of Oren-Yaro when I finally put my finger on it: I was expecting an epic fantasy, all swords and politics, but the plot owes much to romance and melodrama. The book came alive for me as Talyien and Rayyel exchanged barbed comments over dinner. Villoso perfectly captures the jagged edges of their relationship: how much the couple once meant to one another, and how easily that lets them hurt one another. The problem for me had been pacing: Talyien’s emotional turmoil left me cold until their relationship was established (I need context to appreciate emotional drama).
The appearance of Khine the con-man didn’t help. He felt a little too convenient and his character development was a little too predictable (yes, he has a broken heart of gold, a complicated family situation and a code of honour to go with those big brown eyes). In fact, he felt a lot like he was there to tease a love triangle and I really hate love triangles. However, the more time I spent with him, the harder he became to dislike. In the end, I really liked how their relationship developed – and how it exposed Talyien’s expectations of love and duty.
…but this book was going to be an epic fantasy, not a romance. Right?
Well, sort of.
The book follows Talyien’s attempts to find allies in a hostile country to help her bring her husband home and fulfil their duties as rulers of Jin-Sayeng (…and live happily ever after as a rare political marriage turned love match. Dreams die hard). Stripped of her retinue, she must escape the clutches of Anzhao City’s underworld, dodge bandits and outwit the ambitions of foreign dignitaries who seek to capitalise on her situation.
Still, at one point I had to pause to reflect that it’s not your typical epic fantasy that revolves primarily about the failures of various would-be strongmen to leash a short-tempered, sword-wielding Queen (yes, I liked Talyien).
While I found myself engaged by the emotional arcs as past deceits were exposed and the cost of love became clear, I was left shaking my head at some of the plot choices in the final act (dial M for Melodrama and strap in). The villain in particular was just too over the top for my taste – an egocentric pantomime megalomaniac given to over-engineered schemes and stepping from the shadows to proclaim “HAHA, I have outwitted you again, Queen Talyien! Marry me?”. Flamboyance can tick my boxes (looking at you, Prince Ruven), but here I couldn’t wait for him to be set on fire.
However, the world-building is a delight: a Filipino-inspired fantasy full of Southeast Asian flavour, with multiple distinct cultures clashing in the melting pot of Anzhao. Villoso has a gift for bringing her setting to life, from the dizzying heights of the towers of Old Oren-Yaro to the mage-raised walls of Zorheng City, although at times I rued her knack for evoking the unpleasant odours of her cities’ alleys and canals. The more fantastical elements are mostly muted, but the threat of dragons returning in the west and the brilliance of the magic in the sky is a shining promise of what this series might have in store – as is the tantalising mention of mage-wrought airships.
Overall, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is an interesting if sometimes uneven read that is at its best in its quietest moments. While it never quite won me over entirely, I seem to have developed Feelings and Opinions about most of the cast in spite of myself (do NOT ask me about Rayyel Ikessar), and I suspect I’ll find myself thinking about the world-building for days to come. I’ll certainly be back for the sequel to sate my curiosity about those dragons and see what terrible decisions Tali will make next…
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks Nazia!