I judged this book by its cover and steered clear of it for more than a year, until by a strange, convoluted road I ended up reading it.
The cover of 2020’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, written by K.S. Villoso, is beautiful, featuring a gorgeous woman in profile, wearing body-hugging leather armor, with a sword over one shoulder and a decorative cut on one perfect cheekbone. This, combined with the blurb from a well-known fantasy writer and the back cover-copy which starts, “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf…” made me think I was taking on a gory military (or quasi-military) fantasy where a deposed queen hacked and slashed her way through enemy armies for some reason. At the time (pandemic?) I just wasn’t up for that. (The series is called THE CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN on Goodreads, although Amazon may show THE CHRONICLES OF THE WOLF QUEEN.)
2020 rolled on. In 2021 I read a controversial review of this book’s sequel, The Ikessar Falcon, in Locus. Without spending too much time on what was controversial about it, I’ll say this: the reviewer started off by saying they hadn’t read Book One. I read the whole review, shaking my head, but it made me curious. (Off-topic; having read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I cannot imagine trying to review any subsequent books without having this background.)
Also, a note: Talyien, the queen in question, hacks and slashes her way through plenty, but that is not the heart of this story, and there is much more going on here.
Talyien is the Dragonlord queen of Jin-Seyeng, a small nation on an archipelago filled with city-states, nation-states and empires. She rules alone, since her husband, the scion of a rival clan, walked away from their marriage the day before they were to be crowned together. Talyien’s goals have been to maintain peace among the squabbling warlord clans of her country, and protect her son. Suddenly, five years later, she gets a message from Rayyel, the husband, who desires a meeting.
Rayyel wishes to meet in secret in Anzhao City, a supposedly neutral location. The Jinsein are not welcomed or respected there, but Talyien risks it for the sake of peace in her nation and her son’s heritage. As you might expect, things go very wrong very fast, and soon the queen is lost, friendless and penniless in an enemy city… not to mention wounded. She doesn’t know if Rayyel is living or dead.
I loved the world Villoso created here, with its political intrigues, the treatment of magic, which differs dramatically from nation to nation, and the various problems each nation faces — like dragons. I grew to like the narrative voice of Queen Talyien, although that took me a little longer. At first I thought the story required Talyien to be stupid — although I still admired her indomitable will and her toughness. Gradually, as the book continued, I realized that I had mis-identified naivete as stupidity. I’m still not completely sold that a woman raised by a warlord father, who says at one point she’s never lived a life outside of politics, would be quite this naïve, but her devotion to her son and her drive to either rescue her ex or bring him to justice carried me through even when I was raising my eyebrows at various choices. And at times in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, like when she journeys to another city, it’s clear that Talyien is doing the absolute best she can do with no resources, and that was impressive.
Secondary characters have distinct voices, backstories, and issues, which carry things along even more. While I would describe this as somewhat of a slow start, once Talyien and Rayyel meet for their summit, the story hits a brisk pace and never slows down again.
Plotting gave me some trouble. Near the end of the book, the story relies on a huge coincidence to introduce an important character. I’m still not quite clear how Talyien escaped from a certain predicament, ghosts or no ghosts. There are some glitches in the story as well. At one point, when she is being attacked by an assassin, Talyien fights him off, then pauses to stare out the door and wish someone would come to help her. Now is not the time, Taly! At the end of the day, though, I was rooting for our destitute queen and I wished Rayyel would get eaten by a dragon, so clearly I’m invested.
At the end of the book, Taylien must return to Jin-Seyeng, with only a handful of helpers (at least two of whom are sketchy at best), to rescue her son. Book Two, The Falcon of Ikessar is out now. I plan to read it. I recommend The Wolf of Oren-Yaro as a great summer read — and I strongly suggest you start with it.