If your fantasy features a woman with the unofficial title ‘Bitch Queen’, it’s pretty much a dead cert I’m going to be interested..!
Book: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by KS Villoso
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge from Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warning: A lot of attempted sexual assault (always averted, to the point of being slightly ridiculous).
I did not get what I was expecting at all with this book, but I ended up loving it anyway! From the description – a queen with a shaky reign, whose jointly-ruling husband left her five years ago, travels to another land when he offers her a reconciliation – I figured this was going to be a court fantasy, full of politicking and hidden intrigue. I couldn’t have been more wrong, really! Things go very wrong with the reconciliation and it becomes a survival story, with Queen Talyien having to adapt quickly to life on foreign streets, while trying to find out what’s going on, ideally without losing her husband’s trail, her political power, or her life. It’s grittier than I was expecting, but much lighter than full grimdark, and it has a swashbuckling adventure feel that kept me turning the pages fast.
Tali’s voice is really engaging from the get-go. She is a really well-layered character – phenomenally naive about people and real life, but with this crackling shell of harshness and ruthlessness to try to make up for it. She’s a talented fighter, a very intelligent person, and very emotionally strong in some senses, but she’s not the hardened warlord she wishes she was (and pretends she is) and it’s really interesting to see how she is constantly impacted by her own vulnerability and romanticism. At its core, this is a story about Tali learning about herself and the things that matter to her, and being forced to come to terms with Rayyel’s betrayal, which she has largely been ignoring for the last five years. She also, more urgently, has to navigate staying alive and in one piece, before she can even worry about all of that (and perhaps here is a good place to note that while I think the plot was realistic about the likelihood of a foreign woman without any contacts, money, or street sense facing sexual assault, it averts it every single time in a way that felt unrealistic. I never want female characters to be raped, but when the narrative jumps through dramatic hoops to avoid it after setting it up, I start to feel uncomfortably like it’s a comment that ‘smart enough girls don’t get raped’). Anyway, Tali’s under constant tension from the expectations that she heaps on herself – to be a great queen, a good wife, a good mother, a strong woman, a smart woman; to be loved, to be feared, to be successful, to let herself be soft – and she’s an amazingly believable character because of it.
There’s also a host of secondary characters who leap from the page, from the sassy con-man with a heart of gold, Khine, (who actually reminded me a lot of my favourite detective, Falco, with his wit, cynicism about the poverty he’s stuck in, and his meddling sisters) to the creepy-as-balls suave Prince Yuebek, who presents himself as an ally but is actually one of the most terrifying people in the book. I would possibly like to have seen a few more prominent female characters, as though there are plenty, they mostly don’t have major parts, but I actually think that having Tali pulled constantly in different directions by her husband’s absence, Yuebek’s machinations, and even the memory of her late, celebrated father, is a fantastic comment on the women of history and how they have been defined by the men around them, even when they are the ones with the power. It makes Tali’s determination to succeed and ‘have it all’ (where all is keeping her power and regaining her husband’s love) really stand out brilliantly. I also love that she is a mother, and a caring one, since mothers in fantasy are so often cruel, controlling, or dead – we see almost nothing of her son in this book, as he is seven and remains at home while Tali travels, and she’s certainly distracted from thinking about him by the constant fight for her life, but I would like to think we’ll see more of this relationship in the rest of the trilogy.
Fascinatingly, Rayyel himself is very rarely on the page, which I think may have been to the detriment of his character and motivations. We spend so much time in Tali’s head looking at her memories of him – first as prickly, stuck up prince, then as the man she fell in love with, then as a man who was willing to walk away from her and their infant son (not to mention their country) – that we get a very warped and flawed picture of him. There’s an attempt to create a sense of Tali’s narration being unreliable which mostly hinges on the reader not knowing the reason he left – was he exiled by her, or did he leave her? I found that (mild spoiler, possibly?) when we do eventually get to the bottom of it, it was for an extremely underwhelming reason that actually made me think less of Rayyel (not as a person, but as a plot point that had been built up so much). For a book that breaks so much new ground with character work, I thought that this was actually disappointingly banal – I was expecting a huge twist that would reveal more about his character, and didn’t get one! I really hope that in the next book we get to see either a little more depth to his reasoning, or we get to see Tali really and truly shake him off as inconsequential.
I have to admit that I know very little about the Philippines culturally or historically (blame the British education system – I studied History to A-Level and we spent five years straight on Nazi Germany). So there’s a lot I can’t speak to in this book about the Filipino influence the author has been very clear she wanted to include (both on Twitter and in the included Q&A), and I can’t say how much of the world-building is historically based. However, I can say that both the societies we get to see in the course of the book are well-distinguished and feel fully realised, and there’s a really well done sense of tension between the two cultures that is seamlessly woven into pretty much all the character interactions. The world-building in this sense, in the sense that it affects everything about every scene, is brilliant.
I did have a couple of minor niggles, but nothing that detracted from the enjoyment overall. There are a few slightly strange grammar constructions that I would have expected to be ironed out (“how big of an army are we talking?”, for example – I hate “big of a something” outside of contemporary fiction, as it sounds very modern and American and jars me out of whatever setting we’re in), but I appreciate that I am extremely picky about things like that! A little more impactful in terms of issues was that in walking the line between ‘dumping all the backstory’ and ‘letting the reader find out in due course’, it tends to side with the latter, which I don’t mind, but there are a fair few moments where it falls too far into ‘don’t tell the reader enough to know anything’, which I definitely do mind! Similarly, there are a few flashback scenes which I didn’t think were sign-posted well enough (no tense change or separation on the page), meaning I had to go back and reread to catch that we were in a memory. This confusion lessens as the book goes on, so hopefully it’s just teething problems.
However, although I feel like I’ve been fairly critical in this review, none of those issues stopped me from having an immense amount of fun with this book! I feel like all my criticisms are born out of the book being so close to perfect, which is often harder to describe than something middling or worse. It’s really, really, damn good fantasy, and it feels really fresh and modern. It’s fairly chunky, at 426 pages, but it reads really quickly as there’s always something going on. There’s some really incredible character work, especially in terms of Tali, who is one of the most complicated women I’ve ever read, and it was an absolute delight to get inside her head. I’m really excited to see her grow and come into her power even further in the next book, since I think she should get more of a chance to work out what kind of a queen she wants to be on her own terms.
I’m still searching for the twisty, political, ballgowns-and-hidden-daggers court fantasy of my dreams, but I loved The Wolf of Oren-Yaro for what it was – smart, fun, feminist fantasy – and I can’t wait for the rest of the trilogy. Four and a half cats out of five!