Listen. If you don’t know by now how hard I ball for Filipino authors – well then, allow me to take the time to welcome you to my blog, because you’re definitely new around these parts if you don’t know that about me!
I’ve been a long-time fan and supporter of Kay’s, and when I heard that her novel The Wolf of Oren-Yaro was going to be published, I was ecstatic. Not only because it’s a magnificent, unapologetically Filipino-coded high fantasy, but also because my dream publisher and favourite industry bookish people of all time, Orbit, was the pioneer that decided to take a chance on this novel. Naturally, when Shealea (whose blog is temporarily down while she makes some improvements!) announced the #HailTheBitchQueen tour, I knew I had to sign up.
Despite my hellish work schedule (which you already know all about if you follow me and my rantings on Twitter, lol) and the intimidating page count (496, y’all!), I just knew I had to sign up. And I absolutely didn’t regret it one bit.
Read on to find out why!
Title: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro
Author: K.S. Villoso
Age Range: Adult
Genre: High Fantasy, Grimdark
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.
Content warnings: Torture, graphic injury, sexual assault, attempted rape
☕ Quotes ☕
“Unfaltering, dutiful, and loyal to a fault – these tenets are why the rest of Jin-Saying have labeled our people wolves of Oren-Yaro, a term that started as an insult These wolves, they like to say, these bloodthirsty beasts, these savages who would stop at nothing. But far from taking offence, we decided to adopt the title, bestowing the name wolf of Oren-Yaro on all who fall under the shadow of our province. As a people, we embrace these tenets, regardless of clan, regardless of caste, setting us apart from the rest of Jin-Saying. It has created a unity never before seen in these lands. We know it. The others know it. It is why the Oren-Yaro are as feared as they are revered; the strength of our resolution has toppled realms.”
“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.”
“One moment you are certain of yourself, the next you are standing where you once swore you never would. And then you must pick up your life where it fell, dust it off, and pretend that you knew what you were doing. Pretend that profound wisdom can be somehow gleaned from pride.”
☕ Plot ☕
Although the book is already out-and-out described as one that is character-driven, I personally think that it had way more than that going for it in terms of plot! Yes, the protagonist was very much the book’s driving force, but the plot was the sort of spellbinding that keeps you turning the page, eager to find out more.
The kingdom of Jin-Sayeng has long been beset by the War of the Wolves, a vicious civil war that threatened to tear the country and its ruling clans apart. It only ended upon the betrothal of Rayyel from the Ikessar clan and Talyien of the Orenar clan, the only children of the two opposing sides in the war. Of course, it’s not that simple. On the day they’re to be crowned, Rayyel suddenly leaves, abandoning a wife, a son, a throne, and the future he and Talyien had planned together.
Hurt and heartbroken, Talyien thinks all is lost, until a letter arrives from Rayyel, inviting her to reconcile. It ends up being a trap, and Talyien ends up stranded halfway across the world from her son, her kingdom, the soldiers loyal to her, and everything she’s ever known. Her struggle starts as a straightforward journey to rescue her husband and get back home to her son, but it turns into so much more when she uncovers a plot on her life, her kingdom, and her family.
The thing that I adored the most about the plot is how almost nothing seemed to go right. The effect was that it drove the stakes up immediately, which – let’s be honest – I was not expecting from a fantasy that called itself character-driven. I quickly found myself eager to get to the next chapters, wondering what was going to happen or what scrape Talyien was going to get herself into next.
Also, did anyone notice how this plot kept turning old tropes and clichés into something new and fresh? Nothing is as you expect it to be. I was prepared for a wily and cunning king and got a particularly vicious and cruel chauvinist. I was expecting a cold, calculating, bloodthirsty queen and got an endlessly complex character with depth and nuance. Whatever more traditional fantasy has put into your head, whatever preconceived notions you’ve got when you think that you’ve got your usual warrior queen stereotype on your hands, get rid of them. The author uses characteristics that work for the plot, and nicely circumvents those that don’t work, leaving us with an intriguing, well-rounded high fantasy work of art that I can’t wait to read more of!
☕ Writing ☕
The world-building of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is superb. It’s one of the best examples of being able to give your reader in-depth information about your universe without resorting to exposition or info dumps that I’ve ever read. The information is fed to the reader slowly but surely, so that you understand the political ramifications of the characters’ actions, and there’s no need to go flipping back to previous pages to check what was what.
Personally, I was absolutely fascinated by the history of Jin-Sayeng, and its relations with the empire across the sea. Honestly, I’d read a history book on Jin-Sayeng and the surrounding kingdoms! I also adore how Kay was able to work in issues like xenophobia and the wide gap between the rich and poor in her world-building. The devil is in the details, as they say. There’s going to be instances of slur usage, prejudice, etc. in a fantasy universe where war is the norm, and those small things speak to just how thoroughly Kay thought up the world she writes in. But make no mistake: those things don’t exist just for the sake of existing. In no uncertain terms, these inequalities are called out and addressed as societal evils.
I also love how absolutely, unmistakably Filipino-coded Kay’s writing is. The description of how it’s the norm in Jin-Sayeng to eat with one’s hands (what we call kamayan in the Philippines), the description of food such as puto and isaw, and even cultural norms that we have in the Philippines such as close family ties and utter loyalty to those who earn it (what we call here utang na loob). Speaking of Filipino cultural norms, I really appreciated how Kay was able to write about these things not just as uniquely Filipino things that we can be proud of, but also wellsprings of toxicity that we as a community need to overcome. Filipino culture is pretty much a two-edged sword; there are things about as a people that are great, but take those things too far and you get the tendency to corruption, greed, and an “us against the world” mindset. And this reality is portrayed very well in this book.
☕ Characters ☕
The book is described as a character-driven fantasy, and boy oh boy, they were most decidedly not lying.
While every character in this book is well-written, well-rounded, and realistic, I’d like to focus this section on the star of the show: Queen Talyien.
I’m not exaggerating when Talyien’s struggles felt incredibly, intimately familiar to me. Although her story takes place in a fantasy world, it’s definitely one that any Filipino woman will be familiar with. Kay has stated that she drew inspiration for Talyien’s character from the reality of Filipino women that she has personally experienced, and you can truly see that.
The Filipino woman is the heart of Filipino society. We often refer to wives and mothers as ilaw ng tahanan, which literally means ‘light of the home’. In modern times, this phrase has been extended to include aunts, grandmothers, and older sisters – the women of the household to whom the burden of maintaining the entire family falls. It’s expected that the woman of the house be everything for her family, but at the same time, the father is still considered the ‘head of the household’. At the same time, women of the household are expected to care for their families and keep them together, but are blamed if anything goes wrong.
Husband strays? Oh, the wife did something. Kids are not doing well? She’s not an involved mother. And on the other hand, if the woman of the house goes out of her way to keep the family together at the expense of her own health, career, or happiness, people still judge her anyway! Oh, look at this woman, she’s being an idiot, trying to make her cheating spouse stay. What a fool, chasing after a husband who left her. The Filipino woman just can’t win.
This is reflected so much in Talyien’s story. As she went after an errant husband she still loved, trying to put back together a family for the sake of her son, I couldn’t help but think of my own mother. As the eldest daughter of a single-parent household, I too experienced a lot of these difficulties foisted upon the so-called ilaw ng tahanan and found myself alternating between resenting our circumstances and being in awe of my mother. Sacrifice, love, devotion – these are the core tenets of who Talyien is as a woman, wife, and mother, and these are the core tenets of what defines the experience of a Filipino woman, wife, and mother.
This book challenges the definition of strength. Too often, we got ‘strong female characters’ for whom strength is putting on armour and being a badass fighter, or suppressing one’s emotions entirely, or being ‘one of the boys’. For the Filipino woman, and for Queen Talyien, strength is giving your all for those you love. Strength is keeping your family together against all odds. And finally, strength is having the wisdom to realise when it’s time to let go. Strength is recognising your own worth, and acknowledging that your decisions are yours alone, and that no one else but you can tell you what path to follow.
☕ Overall ☕
This book was easily one of the best reads I’ve had this 2019. Please do yourself a favour and pick it up at your local bookseller. You won’t be sorry! This in an absolutely stunning novel from K.S. Villoso and I can’t wait to read the second book, not to mention the rest of her work!
Sound off in the comments!
☕ Have you read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro? What did you think?
☕ Could you relate to Queen Talyien? Why or why not?
☕ What are some of your favourite books featuring strong female characters?