THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO by K.S. Villoso (Book Review)
Look, I don’t want to be all hipster about it, but I first read The Wolf of Oren-yaro in July 2018. Having read one of the author’s earlier fantasies in the same world, I had been excited about Wolf since I first read the blurb – actually, now that I think about it, the titles of the book and series were probably enough!
Anyway, my enthusiasm was not misdirected, because the book proved to be one of the strongest self-published titles I’d read. A bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but – like the best self-pub titles often are – full of refreshing novelty, new perspectives, and rewarding risks. As a result, I was more thrilled than surprised that it got picked up by traditional publishing – and is now finally getting its second debut.
I was doubly thrilled to get my hands on an ARC and revisit the story – and curious to see what had changed.
The Wolf of Oren-yaro is about the titular Bitch Queen, Talyien, the Dragonlord of Jin-Sayeng – wife to an estranged husband, father to a disputed child, and queen to a divided people. These problems are all interconnected: in order to keep her country unified and protect the legacy for her son, she is desperate to reconcile with the man who walked out on her the day they were to be crowned.
Within limits, of course. She’s not called “wolf” and “bitch queen” for nothing, and her resolve, stubbornness, and resourcefulness make her a compelling and captivating central character. These traits are also what must win her the devotion and admiration of her few loyal followers – who she doesn’t always treat that well, if we’re honest. Tali is neither your naive-yet-gifted farmgirl, the infallibly badass “strong female” fighter, nor the devoted and devious mother (with a child-shaped Achilles heel) – she’s a much more three-dimensional and realistic protagonist, with elements of all three.
While this is her story – her book, her series – and she’s more than strong enough to hold it together, there’s even more that makes this book stand out. There’s a great supporting cast, each with their own motivations and histories – there are no passengers among them, no matter how briefly they cross her path. There’s an intricate plot of political machinations that I probably didn’t fully follow the first time, but that reflects the author’s utter control and confidence with the world she’s created.
And what a world! The book (as with her others) takes place across a vast, richly-detailed, Asian-inspired (mostly?) map of nations, each with different cultures, languages, histories, and reputations. All the worldbuilding is handled naturally and matter-of-factly, without any hand-holding or diverting exposition – as it should be. (You might think it’s because this isn’t the first book in the world, but I can confirm that there’s even less hand-holding in Jaeth’s Eye!) The setting is more than just window-dressing, too, because taking the queen out of her kingdom and into an indifferent and dangerous foreign land is a massive driver of the plot.
But this isn’t a travelogue, this is the story of a queen trying to pull off a desperate ploy to save her kingdom – and her marriage. It’s not always pretty – she makes a lot of mistakes and spends most of the book jumping from frying pans into fires – but it’s always compelling. The backstory is dosed out in a controlled, timely fashion so the final showdown reveals the answers to both her current predicament and the fateful events that kicked the whole thing off in the first place.
All in all, a very satisfying start to what should be an epic saga.
Here ends the review of the story – all of which would be true no matter the edition you read. If you want to know what’s changed between that first self-published edition and this one, read on. (I realised this gets a little long, and may mean nothing to a new reader.) The short version is – no surprise, considering how good the book was in the first place – overall, very little.
And yet, you can tell quite a bit of work has gone into it, especially at the start. About 20% through both (yes, I compared them side-by-side), I realised that we’d got to exactly the same place, just not through the same steps. Scenes had been shuffled around, flashbacks had moved (in some cases, into the “present”), and some of the non-linearity had been brought back into line. All of this made for a smoother – if more conventional – opening, and one that I think will work better for the majority of readers.
The changes to the rest are even less evident – barring a couple more new scenes. Mostly, it seems to be subtle tweaks to the language, shifting the emphasis or making motivations (or actions) clearer, or introducing a few call-back points that tie the whole thing together. As far as I could tell, at least 90% of the original prose and dialogue remains intact (if not always in the same place!), word for word.
It’s an interesting lesson in publishing, because we rarely get to see more than one version of a story, and certainly not a before-and-after. For those worried that agents and big-house editors will rewrite your story, this is clearly not the case (as anyone would have told you). But it does show how an experienced eye can smooth out rough edges and take what was already a very good book to the next level – however, this doesn’t mean massaging every single sentence for the sake of it, just the key ones.
For existing fans – or those who may have been wary of a self-pubbed book – you are getting the same thrilling story, the same compelling characters, the same richly-realized world, but just in a much more polished format. This is no slight on the author’s efforts – she created the raw material of this rough diamond and shined it enough to see its brilliance – but with expert help (and a lot more hard work, I imagine) the jewel has now been cut so it sparkles even more brightly.
I highly recommend this for fans of personal journeys, political fantasy, strong women, atypical settings, and just generally awesome fantasy fiction. You don’t want to miss out on the Bitch Queen the second time around!