K. S. Villoso’s 20171 The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is the first volume in the Annals of the Bitch Queen secondary-universe fantasy series.
Civil war has reduced the once-great kingdom of Jin-Sayeng to a shadow of its former strength. The contending warlords finally agree to end the strife with an arranged marriage. Talyien and Rayyel will marry and serve as co-rulers. Their marriage will join the two strongest feuding clans. No one in the clans is all that enthused with the new rulers. They’re a compromise choice. The war will end and everything will work out.
Five years ago, Talyien was crowned queen. Rayyel should have been crowned king and ruled beside her. But he abruptly left the capital city for self-imposed exile. For five years only vague rumors of his doings have reached the queen. The political situation is tense; the peace is threatened.
Then Rayyel offers a secret parley. The meeting place: Anzhao, on the other side of the sea, in the vast and powerful Zarojo Empire. Convinced that the possible benefits of this venture outweigh the risks, Talyien sets out with a select group of advisors, servants, and guards for a secret meeting with her husband.
The attempt at rapprochement begins poorly. Rayyel isn’t interested in unity. He proposes a polite division of Jin-Sayeng between its two rulers. He informs his wife that several influential warlords support his proposal. She is dismayed; she hadn’t known that Rayyel had been plotting.
Matters take a turn for the worse when one by one, members of her entourage are assassinated or turned to the other side. She’s alone in an alien nation, pursued by relentless killers. Talyien begins to understand that she is a playing piece in a game whose rules are unknown.
This is an Asian-themed fantasy featuring an empire as grand and domineering as imperial China was to its neighbours. Talyien does not come from that empire. She comes from a neighbouring kingdom — a small kingdom — low-hanging fruit for the great empire.
Talyien talks a ferocious game—They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me—but she’s oddly hesitant to kill her noble enemies.
Ordinarily I would approve of people who aren’t anxious to kill, but in this case, her hesitancy only extends to those of equal status and her wavering threatens her kingdom. Many of Jin-Sayeng’s political problems could be solved with some strategic murders.
But her greatest flaw as ruler is that (rather like Yona of the Dawn) is that not only she doesn’t know whom to trust, she is unaware that she does not know who to trust. She’s an entitled aristocrat with poor people skills.
I am reminded of Jane Gaskell’s venerable Cija series. The protagonist of that series was also poorly informed and all too gullible. One can excuse Cija because she was raised in ignorance. It’s harder to excuse Talyien; she grew up during a civil war and was groomed to rule a troubled kingdom. This first book in the series makes a good case for regicide. Jin-Sayeng might be better off without her2.
From the reader’s perspective, this is all a plus: Talyien’s blindspots facilitate a breakneck sequence of dangerous encounters, duels, captures, escapes and sudden revelations. What she learns from all this will doubtless be covered in the next installment.
1: This novel was first published by Liam’s Vigil Publishing Co., about whom I know nothing. The edition I read was the 2020 Orbit edition.
2: Which isn’t to say that her husband is much better. Thanks to his pride, civil war may break out again. Worse yet, the Zarojo Empire may gobble up his country. Which, granted, from a commoner’s perspective, might not be such a bad thing. The empire may be run by unpleasant people, but at least they’re competent.