Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

Why You Need to Read: “Uprooted”

Uprooted

By: Naomi Novik

Published: May 19, 2015

Genre: Fantasy/Fractured Fairy Tale or Fairy Tale Retelling/Coming-of-Age Story

            The Dragon didn’t always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one, somehow: if there was one girl who was far and away the prettiest, or the most bright, or the best dancer, or especially kind, somehow he always picked her out, even though he scarcely exchanged a word with the girls before he made his choice, (Chapter 1).

            I remember what led me to read this book. The ebook was on sale and I saw the promotion for its upcoming companion novel, Spinning Silver. Then, I attended BookCon in 2018. I had read an excerpt of the author’s upcoming novel, Spinning Silver, and I wanted to meet her and have her sign copies of her books. Yes, books, because in addition to Spinning Silver, I picked up Naomi Novik’s other books, His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire Book 1—which, I still haven’t read, yet—and Uprooted, which I had already read. I reviewed Spinning Silver first. Both books are similar in themes and tropes, but they stand out well as individual standalone novels. 

            Agnieszka is 17-years-old and lives with her parents in the village, Dvernik, near the corrupted Wood’s border. A wizard, known only as “the Dragon” to the villagers, protects the village from the Wood, which is his task set to him from the royal court. As part of the Dragon’s tribute, he takes one girl from the village for 10 years of service. No one knows what the service entails except the girls return as women, but “changed,” and leave the village for city life shortly after. Agnieszka is tall, clumsy and awkward, and she’s one of the girls who is of the age for the Dragon to choose from for his next tribute. However, Agnieszka knows she won’t be chosen, but her friend, Kasia, will be the one chosen. Kasia is beautiful and talented in almost everything she does, and Agnieszka and the entire village knows the Dragon will choose her. Only, he doesn’t. To everyone’s shock, Agnieszka is selected to serve the Dragon. Now, Agnieszka has to learn what is expected of her for the next 10 years. And, this includes filling in for the Dragon when he cannot attend court. Agnieszka learns about the Dragon and his service, why she was chosen over the other girls, and how the Wood became so corrupted. Agnieszka develops as a character and as a person as she learns about the outside world, which she has been sheltered from her entire life, and about the dark forces that make the Wood so dangerous. Agnieszka is accompanied by the Dragon, but as she learns more about what is expected from her, she refuses to lose contact with her family and her friends. Agnieszka grows up in an unusual way under unusual circumstances, and she manages in her own way.

            The plot is divided into two parts. The first part regards Agnieszka’s “services” to the Dragon, which is easier said than done. While Agnieszka shows promise with the more “difficult” tasks, she is awkward when it comes to completing the “easier” ones, which makes for a very entertaining “education.” The second plot revolves around the Wood and how it continues to grow stronger and more aggressive. After the Dragon is injured during a confrontation with the Wood, Agnieszka must travel to the royal court in his place in order to request reinforcements. Once there, Agnieszka meets the royal family and other individuals like the Dragon. It is here when the subplot develops: the Dragon’s relationship with the court, and the court’s connection to the Wood. The subplot explains the two plots of the novel as they all go at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative is told from Agnieszka’s point-of-view in first-person in the protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness. Everything the readers learn, is from Agnieszka’s perspective. If she is not where the action is taking place, then she learns about it afterwards from someone else (and, so do the readers). The fact that Agnieszka can only account for her actions and her experiences make her a reliable narrator. All of these elements make the narrative easy to follow.

            The style Naomi Novik uses for Uprooted follows both a fairy tale retelling and a fractured fairy tale. A fairy tale retelling is when a known fairy tale is retold with components that alter either the setting or the characters. A fractured fairy tale is when a smaller, yet popular part of a fairy tale is kept while the rest of the story changes. In this case, elements of the story, “Beauty and the Beast” can be found throughout the narrative, but the author presents a new story from the few parts she fractured and used. The mood in this novel is anticipation. All of the characters in the story are anxious or excited about an upcoming event, or dreading a threat that cannot be stopped. The tone of the novel focuses on how all of the characters remain resilient during such difficult times and how they handle themselves. The last two literary elements of style will make you forget about the fractured fairy tale and focus on the fantasy story.

            The appeal for Uprooted have been noteworthy. Besides receiving critical and popular acclaim, this novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2016. However, it seems that since the release of Spinning Silver, Uprooted has fallen a bit behind on the popularity, but I can assure you, if you enjoyed the former, then you will enjoy the latter. Uprooted remains a great addition to the fantasy canon, and fans of Katherine Arden, S.A. Chakraborty, and Rena Rossner will enjoy this book the most. There hasn’t been any announcements on whether or not we should expect another novel similar to this one, but I am willing to wait for as long as it takes, especially since the rumor is that both books are set in the same universe. Uprooted can be reread; in fact, older adolescents can read and enjoy this book as well (regardless of some of the adult content). 

            Uprooted is an entertaining coming-of-age story about identity and magic of all sorts. All of the familiar fairy tale tropes are twisted from what you know of them, and that makes the story more enjoyable. If you read and loved Spinning Silver, and you haven’t read Uprooted yet, then don’t wait any longer. If you want to read a fantasy story that uproots the expectations of the readers, then this is the book for you.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Fifth Season”

The Broken Earth: Book One: The Fifth Season

By: N.K. Jemisin

Published: August 4, 2015

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 2016

 

This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time. (Prologue).

 

N.K. Jemisin is one of science fiction’s biggest authors whose popularity continues to grow. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is a MUST READ for ALL readers regardless of its genre. Jemisin, like other sci-fi authors, incorporates social issues of both the past and the present with scientific theories and scientific facts that make her work more comprehensible for her readers.

The Fifth Season captures the readers’ attention instantly by using the second person narration for the first chapter (after the Prologue) and is used throughout the novel. This style of narration pulls you into the structure of the society of a futuristic and a damaged planet Earth. The story begins with a terrible earthquake and the mother of a murdered toddler, Essun; then, the story jumps to a young girl, Damaya, being cast out by her family for demonstrating a dangerous ability; and finally, the story moves to another protagonist, Syenite, who is given an unusual task by her superiors to complete.

N.K. Jemisin gives readers her vision of a dystopian world with several science references that will force you to reread your old science notes from high school! In other words: geology, genetics, and environmental science are part of the larger subplot of this trilogy! Just like with other works of science fiction: the world, the environment, the culture, the inhabitants, and the jargon need to be mentioned and explained. And, since this is the first book in a trilogy, it is worth learning the terminology and the information in the Appendices (i.e. orogeny, the Stillness, stone eaters, rogga, Guardian, etc.) because they are part of the story and are used throughout the trilogy. And yes, you do learn what a “Fifth Season” is early in the novel.

The characters and the style are juxtaposed. Since there are three different characters—a child, a young adult, and a parent, all female—the style reflects the experiences and the events occurring to each of them. This means that what is happening to a 10 year-old is different from what a grieving mother is feeling. There are five other characters we meet within the novel, but we do not get their POVs; yet, we eventually find out how and why these main characters are relevant to the protagonists.

Additionally, we learn that all of the characters in this story are damaged and/or ostracized from their communities. All of the characters are connected to the events regarding the end of the current civilization. The decisions and the backgrounds of the major characters give insight into the culture, the history, and the injustices underlined in them; it allows understanding to the actions of the characters throughout the story. The readers learn more about each of them as the story progresses. This is essential because after you learn about the protagonists and the other characters, the events that occurred in the “Prologue” makes more sense and becomes relatable.

The narrative is in the form of stream of consciousness—or the unbroken flow of a character’s perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings within a narration—which is necessary as one reads more of the story. The thoughts of the mother who is grieving for her son, a young woman who begins to question her society for what it is and what they do, and a girl who must adapt to her new lifestyle within a short time in order to survive allows for world building and interpretation of how the world operates. These thoughts and feelings buildup and explode over the course of the novel. The use of flashbacks by all of the characters flows into the present narrative.

The style—based on the narrative—reflects the current protagonist, as per chapter, clearly. Yet, Jemisin’s style allows her readers to gain a sense of mystery because of the uncertainty of the other characters, which are mirrored by the protagonists (through the eyes of the readers)! Everything comes together towards the novel’s ending. By then, readers have a better idea of the protagonist and the main characters and what motivates them all and why. The cliffhanger will make you want to read the next book, The Obelisk Gate immediately; and then, afterwards, The Stone Sky.  

The Fifth Season falls under the apocalyptic subgenre, which means that the characters are preparing for survival. A few other readers have criticized the novel for having scenes that contain the characters performing certain “acts” for survival. This criticism is interesting because other apocalyptic media—The Walking Dead graphic novel series and TV show, and The Last of Us video game—includes characters that commit brutal “acts” in order to survive their situation in that society. And, like The Fifth Season, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us are critically acclaimed. Ironically, we learn of similar situations during war and genocide through witness accounts. I believe reading words still leaves a lot to one’s imagination and gives us a glimpse at a potential reality.

Another critique of the novel is the “harsh reality and treatment” of those with the ability of orogeny (power to “move” the land) also known as “roggas.” Both history and fantasy and science fiction—which reflect humanity at its best and at its worst—expresses the way “different” people are treated. Both genres illustrate various forms of slavery and xenophobia taking place: children being separated from their families, corporal punishment, breeding programs, bounty hunters, etc. Fantasy and science fiction often includes aspects of realism in order to make the story more believable. Ironically, this method of storytelling becomes a critique to how people have and continue to treat other people. Jemisin does an excellent job incorporating this reality within her science fiction saga.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons: the complexity of the characters who are struggling with both external and internal conflicts, narrative and the plot of the story itself, the gripping and the gruesome society the author created, and the innovation of a different type of dystopia. Usually, when I’m thinking about theories on how the world could end, earthquakes and volcanoes do not come to mind. That goes to show that our way of life—not the Earth—could end and no one has an idea as to how and why.

The appeal surrounding The Fifth Season has been noteworthy and deserving. Jemisin’s novel has earned her her first Hugo Award for Best Novel; and, she has been dubbed as being “the next Octavia Butler.” As of right now, a television adaptation is in the stage of “early development.”

The Fifth Season does have a complex narrative, but the story and the characters grip the readers’ attention from the beginning. The uniqueness of the story yanks you in and refuses to slow down until the end. All sci-fi and fantasy fans should read this novel! If you want more of this story, then you can read the rest of the books in this amazing and innovative trilogy! It’s the only way you’ll find out why the Earth and its civilizations were destroyed!