Plot twists have gotten a fairly bad rep in recent years. With every story with a plot twist done well, there’s about five other stories with anti-climatic or outrageous twists that ruin the story. And it’s not hard to understand why since it’s really, really difficult to pull off a good plot twist. Especially nowadays where people have been exhausted with so many stories pulling off cheap twists just for the sake of it.
However, done right, plot twists can enhance a reader’s experience with the story, make it more impactful and memorable. Which is why although I read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso about a year ago, I still think about it and, in particular, how it ended. Not only is the book a profound yet exciting fantasy, it also had a plot twist that nearly made me drop the book from my hands. Since I first finished it, I’ve been fascinated with the masterful way the twist was handled and revealed, how it made the story so much more compelling than it already was to begin with. So with the sequel, The Ikessar Falcon, coming up, I’ve decided to finally sit down and explore this aspect of the book and talk about how a good plot twist can add so much to a story.
Oh, and obviously since we’re talking about plot twists here, SPOILERS for this book. While I don’t think that knowing the big twist at the end before picking up the book will ruin your experience, it is still pretty fun to plunge into a story unprepared. So if you haven’t read the book, well, 1.) you should because it’s great; and 2.) you may want to skip this Book Talk for now.
Untangling Plot Twists
First order of business: what exactly is a plot twist?
Simply put, it’s something unexpected that happens or is revealed sometime in the story that changes how you see the plot or a specific character. There’s really only two kinds of plot twists: a good one and a bad one.
Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing had a really good plot twist. It was nice, subtle, and relevant to the book’s central themes. Without getting into spoilery territory (it’s mentioned in the summary of the book, don’t worry), the main character, Jay, learns the painful truth about Jun, his murdered cousin. The reveal was shocking but, more importantly, it lead Jay (and the reader) to reassess his biases. Jun’s mistakes didn’t make him any less of a person, nor did it justify his murder. That was the whole point. It was a good twist because it wasn’t some cheap ploy to make the reader feel some emotion.
On the other hand, Anna Day’s The Fandom had such a poorly executed, useless plot twist that I genuinely don’t believe you’d lose anything from being spoiled of it (not that I recommend anyone to read this book). The heroes are somehow transported into their favorite dystopian book because the villain in the book is also the villain in the ‘meta’ story. I won’t go into specifics because it’s really dumb and convoluted but basically the villain monologues to the hero for about five pages about his whole plan and how he got the heroes into his world. Besides coming right out of left field, this twist also didn’t do anything other than make the reader shrug and go ‘ok i guess’. There was no foreshadowing, no emotional impact, hell, the twist didn’t even really matter in the end. Clearly, it was a a plot twist shoe-horned in at the last minute… but that’s a topic I want to discuss for another day.
As you can see, like other storytelling tools, good plot twists contribute something more than just surprising new information to the reader.
The Bitch Queen (of Plot Twists)
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the first book of the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, tells the story of the Queen of Jin-Sayeng, Talyien, and her efforts to bring back her estranged husband, Rayyel, who had sought refuge in a politically turbulent foreign country. At the beginning of the book, Talyien admits to killing a man and exiling her husband just days before her coronation. It’s implied that the two events are linked somehow but, for the most part, we don’t know all the details of what happened that night.
The meeting between Talyien and Rayyel go wrong in every way imaginable. Clearly, negotiations will go nowhere and their fractured marriage will only break further the more they talk. But then an assassin tries to kill Tali just as the meeting is ending. Pandemonium erupts. Tali has to flee from the chaos without her guards and lie low in one of the most dangerous part of the city. As she’s fighting and escaping assassins, we get to learn about her past and how she and Rayyel are total opposites of each other. Tali is stubborn, brash, and headstrong. Rai is stoic, studious, and self-righteous. There’s this implied idea that maybe Rayyel left Talyien because murdering a man that night was a step too far for him. And considering all the clan politics that both have had to navigate through all their lives, you start to wonder if the murder was in some way connected to the warlords and that Rai, raised by devout priests and priestesses, didn’t agree with Tali’s decision. It would make sense. At least it did to me as I was reading the book.
After barely surviving worse than hell, Tali finds Rai in hiding. She confronts him at last and he denies having any involvement in any of the attempts on her life. But when Rayyel sees that Tali reunited with her childhood friend and old captain of her guard, Agos, he is livid, convinced that Tali hadn’t learned anything at all. It’s revealed that Rayyel left her because of Agos. That fateful night, an old innkeeper told Rayyel about what he saw days before Rai and Tali’s wedding, how Tali was in the arms of Agos. Rayyel then realizes there’s reason to doubt that their son, Thanh, is his. His virtues compromised, Rai swears to look for a mage who can confirm if Thanh is truly his. If not, Rayyel promises to kill the boy himself, to spare the nation from a false heir.
Here’s a couple of reasons why it was such a great and powerful twist.
Blindsides the Reader
Obviously, because it’s a plot twist, the reveal was a surprise. But in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro’s case, it more than just surprised me, it utterly dumbfounded me. Talyien suffered so much pain, endured so many betrayals, escaped so many greedy, ambitious politicians, all because Rayyel wanted to do a paternity test? Jin-Sayeng is in shambles because the queen and the king had MARRIAGE ISSUES? Sure, Tali having slept with Agos and possibly fathering his child who will be the heir to the dragonthrone is a big issue, especially with the warlords looking for any excuse to question the monarchs. Talyien and Rayyel’s marriage was a last ditch effort to keep the clans from ripping each other apart so Thanh’s possible illegitimacy would spell trouble for everyone. However, considering everything that happened in the book, everything at stake, Rai’s suspicions seem so petty in comparison.
If you haven’t read the book, you probably don’t understand just how baffling it is for Rayyel to have done something so drastic to cause all that mess. See, throughout the book, Tali hammers into us readers just how important her and Rai’s marriage was and how the two of them were basically trained all their lives to rule together and unite Jin-Sayeng. Tali tells us that they both took their jobs seriously too, though they butted heads enough times but never to the point of walking away from their roles. There was too much at stake and both Tali and Rai were too committed at their jobs. You’d expect the thing that would shatter their politically motivated marriage would be this big betrayal, some wild conspiracy, a hasty murder. Not, well, infidelity. Their marriage was to keep their nation intact; they’re supposed to survive anything the warlords have to throw at them.
Instead their marriage was torn apart by something so simple, so human. But we’ll get to that later.
Hidden in Plain Sight
A hallmark of a good plot twist is that it’s hinted at throughout the story so cleverly that upon rereading (or rewatching) you can spot the clues leading to the twist. In The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Tali literally tells us about that night Rayyel left and repeatedly laments how her mistakes caused everything to fall apart. She is angry at Rayyel for leaving her and their son but she also shows no surprise that he did. Tali doesn’t exactly deny her role in Rai’s exile.
But while Tali doesn’t give us specifics – which, considering the nature of her mistake, makes sense – and focuses on her actions after that night, it’s also clear in retrospect that the true reason was more personal than political.
One detail that’s actually quite telling was that Rai didn’t just leave Tali, he left their son too. Well, assumed son. Even during Tali and Rai’s tense encounter at the start of the book, Rai doesn’t ask about Thanh and avoids the topic entirely. Even if Rai was as cold and calculating as Tali believed, surely he’d have been curious as to how the crown prince was faring. If only for his clan’s sake. But because their conversation was filled with nothing but insults and accusations, it’s also easy to miss Rai’s discomfort at the mention of his son or to assume that it’s guilt at leaving the boy too.
It’s so easy to overlook the obvious signs because Talyien, due to her upbringing, has such high standards for herself so when she talks about her mistakes, you kind of assume it’s something to do with her not acting queenly enough at a meeting or her penchant for violence. Talyien is too aware of her role that she refuses to allow herself to be human. She can’t afford that indulgence. Which is why, I think, the plot twist ends up being incredibly profound.
Deepens the Story
Like with Patron Saints of Nothing, the reveal that Tali made a mistake years before the start of the story doesn’t just surprise the reader or serve the plot. It also makes you reevaluate the story and how you, and Tali herself, view the titular Bitch Queen.
Throughout the book, Tali wears mask after mask to survive. She’s her father’s, Warlord Yeshin’s, legacy, just as fierce and cunning as him, a force to be reckon with. She’s the Bitch Queen, the Wolf of Oren-Yaro, ordering heads to roll at every inconvenience. She’s Tali, the nobody hiding in the underbelly of Anzhao, outsmarting thugs and seedy politicians alike. Talyien is so many things but, for all her facades, she was human underneath it all. Rayyel too, though from Tali’s perspective he seems anything but.
Talyien and Rayyel may have grown up preparing to rule a kingdom together and they may have been dedicated to embodying the ideals of their clans, but ultimately they’re just two people bound to slip-up no matter how ardently they may deny it. They’re vulnerable to their emotions even when they think they’re being logical and practical.
The book is told in Talyien’s first-person POV and although we see her struggle and make wrong decisions, we also see her triumph and outwit her enemies. We see her as the Wolf of Oren-Yaro who doesn’t beg and doesn’t cower. The plot twist that it was all just about Tali’s one moment of weakness revealed just how easy it is to forget that even the strongest and fiercest of heroes, of queens, are human in the end.
The older I get and the more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I appreciate books that know how to efficiently utilize story tools like the plot twist. Surprising the reader is easy enough but writing a twist that will resonate with your reader for years to come is a feat not many can accomplish.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is an unforgettable book not just because its plot twist threw me for a loop but because of what that revelation meant for the story and for the characters.