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: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

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