“There are people who find themselves in a precarious situation, believe themselves betrayed, and will do nothing but run their tongues ragged in criticizing the world for not helping them better. Like wailing dogs in the rain, they strain against their leashes instead of turning to gnaw their bonds to freedom, or sit on their piss and wait for pity.
The wolf knows better. I was raised a princess. I was not pampered. But people find it hard to see past the flocks of servants and assume everything was handed to me on a silver platter. Only another child of Yeshin’s would understand, I think, and they are all dead, cold bones under the ashes of Old Oren-Yaro.”
Synopsis: An attempt at reconciliation with her estranged husband places Queen Talyien of Oren-Yaro in a dangerous situation. Stranded, far from her home, and with no idea whom to trust, Talyien will have to rely on her instincts and the kindness of strangers to help her survive. Her pursuers will learn that their quarry is no sheep: she is a wolf.
I picked up “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” (to be referred to simply as “Wolf” for the remainder of the review) on a whim, and because I’d heard a good deal of positive feedback about it. I wanted to see what this tale was about… and I’m glad I did, for many reasons. “Wolf” is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world (I like this trend; it’s refreshing), and while the setting is clear and present, it is not the focus of this story. “Wolf” is a character-driven story, and ladies and gentlemen I could not be happier. I’ve noticed for some time a preponderance of novels which put far too much emphasis on “world-building”, creating these enormous settings bloated with lore and complicated magic. Sadly, such novels often leave me feeling disappointed when it comes to character development, dialogue, and the general narative structure (you know, the elements of pretty much any quality story). Villoso keeps her world-building to a minimum, and instead hits the mark on the other more important criteria (at least to me; this is my personal taste, of course). The dialogue is rich, and I can really feel the characters’ individual voices; the plot makes sense, and is not overly complicated; characters develop and change, and we learn more about them as the pages turn. It’s a well-paced, well-crafted book in general and Villoso should be immensely happy with it.
Talyien is an interesting character, and a study in constrasts. She is the titular “bitch queen” (the series is called “The Chronicles of The Bitch Queen”), ready to do what it takes to survive and save her people, and yet she is a deeply sensitive woman, prone to bouts of melancholy and introspection. Villoso’s protagonist possesses the strength of character and drive to play the hero, and yet is also burdened with a deep sense of loss. Talyien’s internal dialogue, particularly when remembering her absent husband, is often moving, and it is easy to forget how ruthless she is also able to be. Her story features serious growth and discovery, and one gets the impression that she comes out the other side as a different person. This is not always the case with Fantasy protagonists; the genre is fairly rife with Mary Sues and Gary Stus. Not so the case here though: Villoso has made of Talyien a flawed and conflicted woman, but one who grows.
The supporting cast of this text is fairly varied, and features some equally flawed people for Talyien to interact with. When I say “flawed”, perhaps the better term would be “realistic”: people are not saints, nor are they villainous caricatures (I will come back to this point shortly); the truth is omewhere in between. The standout supporting character to me would definitely be Khine, the kind-hearted grifter who repeatedly sticks his neck out for Talyien as she stumbles through the various pitfalls of her circumstances. Khine is by no means a simple thief, and the nuances of his character blossom with every page. His interactions with Talyien are often revealing, and the two play off of each other very well. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him. On the flip side is the book’s primary antagonist (whom I will not name, as I like to avoid spoilers). This particular individual was such a mustache-twirling villain… if Villoso’s goal was to make this character as unlikeable as possible, they certainly succeeded. That being aid, I tend to prefer more nuance in my antagonists. A great villain really makes a story and, sadly, this one fell a little short. If I can hope for anything in the sequel (which I will certainly be reading), it would be for the story to have a more developed and interesting antagonist.
The plot of the story is very much a “fish out of water” tale interspersed with serious danger, adversity, and self-discovery. There are hints of mystery surrounding the events which perpetuated this entire scenario: why DID Talyien’s husband leave years ago? What prompted him to abandon his wife, child, and kingdom? I won’t tell you what happens, but I can definitely say that these questions are answered before the end of the book, so there is no need to worry about an annoying cliffhanger in that regard.
Overall, I enjoyed Villoso’s story immensely, but I am also very much into character-driven narratives. The plot gets a little wobbly at times, wandering from place to place, but it gets there in the end and that’s what counts! If you can stick the landing, all will be forgiven. Villoso absolutely did that in this case, leaving us with a satisfying story all on its own but with the promise of more to come.
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