High fantasy has been my go-to genre for a couple of years now. This year alone, of the more than a hundred books I’ve read, half of them were either high fantasy or contemporary fantasy. It’s a genre that I hold near and dear to my heart. So when the call came for bloggers for the blog tour for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, a Filipino-led high fantasy, I literally jumped at the opportunity.
No joke, this book is one of the best high fantasy books I’ve read all year. And I’ve read more than a few kickass titles this 2019.
The Wolf Of Oren-Yaro
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.
From the very beginning, this book had me in a death grip, its razor-sharp teeth sunk into my flesh so that I could do nothing but keep reading to the end. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro starts with Queen Talyien, our Beloved Queen, the She-Wolf of Jin-Sayeng, forced to leave her volatile land and her scheming warlords to try and patch things up with her husband, Rayyel, who left her and their kingdom five years ago. It seems like a pretty straightforward enough goal but us readers quickly learn that nothing in Queen Tali’s life is ever what it seems.
Assassins, corrupt government officials, and political conspiracies years in the making are just a couple of things that Tali has to survive from in this book. I genuinely had no idea where the story was taking me. I was as overwhelmed and confused as Queen Tali herself as she navigated through the dangerous cities and deadly plots against her life.
Overall, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro was a perilous journey that made me fear for the main characters’ lives, despair at the hopelessness of it all, and, against all odds, continue to hope that things will be better if one continues to fight for what’s right and good.
Hail the Bitch Queen!
I have a lot that I want to talk about when it comes to this book’s story but I really don’t want to spoil anyone so I’ll keep this section spoiler-free. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro actually has a lot of twists and turns so I’ll need to take care not to give anything away. .
Told entirely in the first person point of view of Queen Tali, this book centers around her survival in a hostile country. Tali’s infamous as the merciless Bitch Queen, ordering heads off at any sign of insolence. But when she’s uprooted and separated from her people, she has to use her wits to get out of the city alive.
What I loved about this book was how Tali’s actions always had consequences, even when she thinks she has all her bases covered. People die and suffer because of her mistakes and Tali makes a LOT of mistakes in this book. The enemies that she makes she later realizes are necessary allies so she really can’t go around stabbing and killing as she pleases. Foolproof plans she concocts are foiled before she even has a chance to draw breath.
This book’s plot is so tightly-knitted that in every scene and every chapter there’s always something going on that we readers need to pay attention to. There’s literally never a dull moment. Even when Tali reminisces on her childhood there are morsels of the future to come. The story is such a beautiful tapestry where every thread is placed and connected in the exact place it should be. Scenes are woven dextrously so that pressing questions are answered but then also have new meaning as the story goes on. The storytelling in this book is as gorgeous as it is efficient and I LOVED it.
On the same note, the pacing too was impeccable. At first I balked at the 400 pages of the physical copy but as I got into the book, I realized that I was breezing through the pages like nothing. Time meant nothing to me whenever I picked up this book. It’s just so easy to get lost in.
Lastly I want to talk about the plot twists. Naturally, I won’t go into too much detail about them but DAMN did they blow me away. One twist even made me yell at the page because of how shocking it was. However, as much of a shock they were, they also made a lot of sense both for the narrative and for the theme.
A Character-Driven Fantasy
As the author herself described it, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a character-driven fantasy so it makes sense that the characters in the book are the highlights of the story.
Our lead, Talyien, is a morally gray character whose reputation as a ruthless queen gets her into all sorts of trouble. As the monarch of a turbulent nation, Tali is a hardened warrior from the cutthroat Oren-Yaro clan. But although she’s a fierce she-wolf, she’s also experienced painful betrayals and committed mistakes that cost her everything. You can understand why she’s so hard on everyone, especially on herself. Tali’s a compelling character because she continues to fight even when it seems like the whole world is against her.
Another interesting character is Khine Lamang, the con artist who befriends Tali despite the latter’s best efforts. I’m a fool for characters who keep up a cool and cynical exterior but are actually soft and sweet deep down. He’s a delightful, charming character who uses his personality to disarm and persuade people, a stark contrast to Tali who uses her infamy or her dagger to get people to do what she wants.
The supporting characters too are all interesting in their own way. All of them feel like actual human beings with their own feelings and agendas. They felt like real people occupying the world and trying to live in it as best as they can.
Speaking of which.
Jin-Sayeng and the World
The world that Villoso built for this book series is obviously deep and extensive and she managed to expertly balance it all without ever interrupting the action. Worldbuilding, especially in fantasy and science fiction, can be tricky to do organically but in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro you’re never disoriented. Things and concepts are explained succinctly and at the right moment so the story isn’t bogged down by exposition. This is really tricky to pull off which is why I love books that make smooth worldbuilding look so easy.
Additionally, it’s pretty obvious that Tali’s world is influenced by Filipino culture. For one thing, eating with one’s bare hands is the norm in Jin-Sayeng (even royals do it). Another is the food. I spotted Tali eat not just isaw (barbecued chicken intestines) but also puto (rice cakes). I’m sure there were other Filipino dishes and delicacies but those two stuck out to me the most because I especially love them. My mouth watered during those scenes, to be honest. Food plays such an important role in my culture – it’s how we show our love, it’s how we socialize and bond – that I was really happy to see such familiar snacks in a fantastical setting.
Words aren’t enough to convey just how much I loved this book. It’s such a captivating read that will stay with me for a long time. This book won’t be available until February 2020 which means that the sequel won’t be out until much later which means I’ll have to be really really really patient until then. It’ll be hard but for my Beloved Queen, the wait will be worth it.
If you’re looking for a high fantasy book with flawed characters, rich worldbuilding, and political and family drama, watch out for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. You won’t regret it! Hail the Bitch Queen!
About the Author
K.S. Villoso was born in a dank hospital on an afternoon in Albay, Philippines, and things have generally been okay since then. After spending most of her childhood in a slum area in Taguig (where she dodged death-defying traffic, ate questionable food, and fell into open-pit sewers more often than one ought to), she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where they spent the better part of two decades trying to chase the North American Dream. She is now living amidst the forest and mountains with her family, children, and dogs in Anmore, BC.