Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso presents a strong entry in the annals of badass fantasy heroines in the form of Queen Talyien of Jin-Sayeng. She is the first queen of her small martial country. During the book’s first sentence we learn that she is known as the “bitch queen” and the “She-wolf” because she murdered a man on the eve of her coronation and (purportedly) exiled the husband who was supposed to be crowned with her. She is known within her nation as ruthless, aggressive, and ferocious, and she tries not to show any sign of weakness. However, she also misses her husband and loves the son they have together.
Most of the action in the book takes place five years after the aforementioned murder, when Talyien receives a message from her estranged husband Rayyel requesting a meeting in Anzhao City. Anzhao City is in the nearby, much larger and more powerful Zarojo empire, where Jinseins (people from Talyien’s country of Jin-Sayeng) are looked down upon and Jinsein immigrants are reviled and abused. Inevitably, the journey and meeting do not go exactly as planned. Most of the book is a combination road trip from hell/fish out of water story as Queen Talyien is separated from her royal retinue and must a) survive and b) figure out who has betrayed her and why.
Talyien (also known as Tali) is an awesome heroine. She is stubborn as hell, fierce, does not accept threats to her power or signs of disrespect lightly, and is more than willing to mete out harsh justice. The legacy of her deceased father Yeshin, a warlord who deposed the previous ruling family, weighs heavily upon her. She thinks about their relationship when they were alive:
It shook me every time he said that, every time he said you and looked deep into me like he was molding me out of clay and breathing life into my lungs. As if, from the mere word alone, he was creating this image of him that would carry everything he ever was and everything he could never be.
That’s a lot of pressure for someone to carry around! Chill, dad.
Talyien is also ferociously loyal and devoted to her country and her family, hence why she’s willing to drop everything to run to Anzhao City to meet with Rayyel when she has not seen or heard from him for five years. We also see throughout the book how lonely power has made her. Her role as a queen requires her to maintain distance from nearly everyone even though she craves normal connection and friendship with others. I can’t help but love a heroine who has a hard exterior (and in this case, it’s really hard!!) and soft insides.
She’s also a major survivor who literally will not stop fighting for herself or her country. When things first get majorly FUBAR, she thinks:
Now, I had nothing–not my husband, not my advisor, not my guards, not even my own strength. And my son—was he safe? He had to be. I needed him to be safe. If I was to survive even the next hour, I had to ignore that knife on my throat. I had to ignore it, or else it would bleed me.
I love the combination here of her hard pragmatism and her intense maternal connection with her son. I’m not crying, you’re crying! #QueenTalyienforPresident
There are some standout secondary characters as well, especially the doctor/con-man with a heart of gold, Khine. Talyien is perpetually confused by Khine assisting her without any hope of reward or gain for himself. He does it first because it’s the right thing to do, and then because they are friends. They bond before he knows about her elevated social position and so are able to maintain a friendship of equals (more or less) throughout the book. I’m not gonna lie, I spent most of the book really hoping Talyien and Khine would hook up, but unfortunately they did not.
I also found the various settings in this world to be well-rendered, from Talyien’s castle at Oka-Shto to the slums of Anzhao city to the fortress town of Zorheng. And the food!!! The descriptions of all the various yummy things Talyien eats had my mouth watering.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. However, I also found it hard to read because it was so intense. This was not just because there’s almost nonstop action. It was also because violence is so normal in this world. Talyien both inflicts and endures a lot of violence. There are at least two attempted sexual assaults of the heroine. On top of this, there is open and virulent racism against Jinseins in the Zarojo empire. I had to take frequent Terrace House breaks for me to process all of the trauma that Talyien was going through!
What really made this book hard to read, though, was Talyien’s husband, Rayyel (or Rai). Talyien loves Rayyel, even though their betrothal was initially one of political expediency as Rai is the heir to the old ruling family. We learn early on that she also did not actually exile him; he simply rode away from the palace after the infamous pre-coronation murder for reasons that are unclear for most of the book, and she let him go, even though he was violating all kinds of treaties and political agreements by refusing to be crowned.
So when we do meet Rayyel, the level of vitriol, disdain, and disrespect he has for his wife was repugnant to me. His opening salvo when they meet is that he wants to divide the country and each rule half. He tells her whether he has lovers is none of her business. He calls her “Yeshin’s bitch pup” and then claims he was just “quoting” and that she needs to stop taking things personally. Listen, Talyien may not be all sunshine and rainbows, but at least she seems to accept the premise that married people have some kind of duty to each other. She’s making a huge concession by traveling to a hostile foreign country to meet with him, and he responds by being an asshole.
There are a number of flashbacks scattered throughout the book of Rayyel and Talyien’s pre-coronation relationship as well, and they are not flattering to Rayyel. I had basically no understanding at any point of why Talyien loved Rai. I found myself hoping he would end up meeting some kind of unfortunate end, freeing Talyien to pursue a relationship with any number of more palatable options. Unfortunately, he remains alive throughout.
Rayyel generally sucking created an issue for me as a reader. I could not honestly root for Tali and Rayyel’s reconciliation, and it is clear by the end of the book that we are supposed to root for it.
Basically, the book initially posits Rayyel as the one who betrayed Tali but then definitively reveals that it was not him. He also tells her that he loved her at one point, which is posed as a major ray of hope for Tali about their relationship.
While Tali is far from perfect, it feels like their dynamic is Tali perpetually giving ground and Rayyel being condescending, belittling, hypocritical, and selfish in response. It’s clear that Tali takes both their marriage and their shared responsibility to the nation of Jin-Sayeng a lot more seriously than Rayyel does, who comes across as spoiled and self-indulgent. Even when we found out exactly why she killed a man before their coronation and he left, it makes him less sympathetic, not more. Revealing what happened is a pretty big spoiler, but I do think it’s important because it made Rayyel’s character so definitively unsympathetic:
Basically, several days before their marriage ceremony, Tali comes across Rai having sex with someone else. She doesn’t confront him about it even though she is really hurt; instead, she has sex with her childhood friend in a roadside inn for revenge and does not tell Rayyel. They get married. A couple years later, the innkeeper comes to try blackmail both of them with the knowledge that Tali had sex with another man a few days before the marriage, which casts doubt on the legitimacy of their heir. Tali kills the innkeeper; Rai is enraged by Tali’s “betrayal” and so rides away on a horse without talking about shit. Fast-forward five years, he wants to meet about dividing the country in half.
I mean, the level of hypocrisy it takes for Rayyel to consider himself the primary wronged party in this incident is off the charts. And it’s clear even at the end of the book that he still considers himself the primary wronged party. Basically, I found him to be a whiny, entitled, petty, mean burden to Talyien and I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I did not feel like I was supposed to root for them to reconcile.
My other quibble with the book is relatively minor, which is that sometimes the political maneuvering was a little unclear. I was not always quite sure who we were killing for treason and exactly why and why so-and-so was working with such-and-such. Some of the threads here get a little tangled at the end which feels like a result of trying to cram too many late-stage reveals into too short of a word count. However, I did not mind this terribly as reading this book, I mostly felt like I was just on a roller coaster ride. I enjoyed the excitement even when I was kind of disoriented.
In spite of how intense and heavy this book was, I think if Rayyel was out of the picture I would definitely continue with the series because it was highly engaging and Queen Talyien was a compelling heroine. I want to see what she does next. However, because I suspect I will be forced to endure even more Rayyel in subsequent books, I have not completely made up my mind. I think if you like political, action-driven fantasy with a richly rendered world, and you can handle a kickass heroine having a husband who seems waaaaaaaay not good enough for her, you will probably enjoy this book more than I did.