Review | The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – K.S. Villoso

About the Book

A queen of a divided land must unite her people, even if they hate her, even if it means stopping a ruin that she helped create. A debut epic fantasy from an exciting new voice.

“I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of Oren-yaro, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves that nearly tore her nation apart. Her upcoming marriage to the son of her father’s rival heralds peaceful days to come.

But his sudden departure before their reign begins fractures the kingdom beyond repair.

Years later, Talyien receives a message, urging her to attend a meeting across the sea. It’s meant to be an effort at reconciliation, but an assassination attempt leaves the queen stranded and desperate to survive in a dangerous land. With no idea who she can trust, she’s on her own as she struggles to fight her way home.

496 (paperback)
Published on February 18, 2020
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The Wolf of Oren-Yaro was a book I picked up on the fly. I liked the cover, and I was intrigued by the idea of a main character who was, essentially, a single mother, despite her position. We don’t really see a whole lot of that in fantasy, which seems odd when you consider just how common divorce, separation, and single motherhood all is in our own world. 

Now, after I’ve read the book, I’m not completely sure it counts, because she has an entire palace at her back. It’s not like she’s ever worried about where dinner is going to come from, but I didn’t know that going into it so, whatever. Also, the fact the son misses his father, the emotions of being abandoned are there, and I really liked both how raw and real that was, and how it humanized the entire situation. No matter what his station, a boy misses his father.

Anyway, The Wolf of Oren Yaro is one of those books that you’ll likely either love or hate. I happened to really enjoy it, but I can also see why this book could be a bit polarizing. 

Queen Talyien is in a bit of a bad situation. She’s ruling over a kingdom that has been at war and divided. Still, there are factions that are out to destroy everything that she has worked to establish. She’s also living in the shadow of her father’s legacy, which she touches on quite a few times throughout the book. Years ago, the night she was crowned, her husband left her and her son, disappearing… somewhere. The book starts out some years after that event, when Talyien gets word from her long lost husband that he has requested a meeting. 

“Betrayal has a funny way of turning your world upside-down. As familiar as I had already been with it by that point, it still amazed me how far I could stretch that moment of denial. The thought of what had been—of what could yet be—persisted. Perhaps it is not the same for most people. Perhaps, when you love less, it is easier not to let the emptiness become a cavern from which you could no longer see the sun.” 

Talyien ends up in a foreign city, and it’s really here that you see a lot of who she is, her strengths as well as her weaknesses. You also get a lot of comparisons as Talyien is in a position to compare her home, with the outside world. Things, you quickly learn, are not all they appear to be. One has to look beneath the surface, both with regards to the world at large, but mostly regarding the people in it. 

I really enjoyed a lot of the details here, the comparisons between how life is back at home, to how life is here. At the start of the book, she’s wandering through the city and she’s just amazed by the fact that there is such a thing as people who come and clear away the trash. Now, this is a small thing, but you instantly get two levels of world building with comments like that. You understand that A) This city is clean-ish with an established infrastructure and B) Her home is not advanced in such a way that garbage pickup is a thing, and that says a whole lot about how people back home live. That’s small potatoes, maybe, but it is actually pretty deft and subtle, an extremely clever use of detail that just works for me on every level.

There aren’t a whole lot of people you can really root for in this book. I really enjoy that sort of thing. I like murky characters who are neither one thing nor the other, who have mysterious intentions and know who to show the world while hiding their true face. However, I know some readers like to have people who are obviously someone to get behind, and you don’t really find that here. It’s not a book where anyone is really clear cut. Villoso’s ability to weave her story in such a way where you’re second guessing everyone and every motivation is, quite honestly, a skill that I am in complete awe of.

This does mean that there’s only a very few genuinely good people in the whole book, and most of them are positioned in such a way that even while you’re telling yourself, “this is a good guy” you continue to doubt them throughout the book, regardless. Honestly, it’s quite clever, how Villoso manages to keep her readers guessing, even when she’s being as straightforward as possible. She spends so much of the book building up this house of cards and mirrors, that by about the middle of it, you’ll be tying yourself in knots second guessing everything you think you know. 

There are a million times you expect Talyien to give up, give in, take a lover, make a friend, but she is almost maddeningly an island unto herself throughout the book. This might be where I struggled the most. I wanted her to have a bit more contact, to be a bit less cold in the face of everything happening around her. To thaw, at least a bit, and she never really did. Don’t get me wrong, her story is fascinating, and I can’t wait to continue it, but I think, at times, “Ice Queen” might fit better than “Bitch Queen.” She seemed to have two setting in this book, either outright stubborn defiance, or deep, overwhelming self-pity. I will admit, it got a bit exhausting and I wondered if she was capable of feeling something else. 

“Five years of regret has a funny way of fermenting inside someone—like wine, it had only gained potency over the years.” 

That being said, Tali’s voice was strong and unforgettable. This is a character-driven fantasy. However, the world building never really sat second fiddle to Talyien. Incredibly crafted, the world sort of sneaks up on you. There are times when I could almost forget the world in favor of just enjoying the story as it unfolds, but there were plenty of times I had to just take a moment to admire the shockingly unique qualities of the world Villoso has crafted. Not quite one thing, not quite the other, Villoso has managed to make a world that stands out purely because its unashamedly hers. Like the characters in the book, the world is very much a creature all its own, where it shows you one thing, while often hiding darker truths just under its surface. For readers who enjoy subtle cues and hidden truths, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a true treasure-trove.

The characters are flawed, as is the world, and as is the story. No perfect heroes here. No world without limits. Villoso is very careful about keeping everything level. Even those of the highest stations have clipped wings. Characters can fly just long enough to dramatically fall. The book does move along at a good pace, and there’s plenty of interesting things happening to keep you hooked. There were parts of the book where I felt like maybe things were getting a bit one-note, specifically regarding the (mostly) two emotional settings that Tali seemed most comfortable in. I also have a bit of an issue with the ending, where so many revelations happen all at once. I couldn’t help by alternatively respecting Villoso for managing to pull that off, and feeling a bit like I was strung along before all these truths were marched out. 

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is one of those books that shines because it’s so unique, and it’s never showy about all the things that set it apart. One word I think could define Villoso is “subtle.” So much of what impressed me was almost hidden behind all the surface action. There’s a depth here to absolutely everything, and I loved it. This is the first book in a series, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next. 

4.5/5 stars