The stunning finale to the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy where the queen of a divided land must unite her people against the enemies who threaten to tear her country apart.
Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.
War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.
Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.
Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.
Trigger Warnings: violence, massacres, blood, suicide, rape (off-scene)
Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for sending me a copy for review. Quotes have been matched up against a published copy.
You’ve heard about the Skywalkers? Those space royals got nothing on the Orenars.
In the previous escapades of Talyien Orenar, in Villoso’s brilliant Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, Yeshin Orenar’s plans for his daughter roll out from the grave in The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng, solidifying this all down to one final and brutal ending. Talyien attempts to save her people, her son, and herself from cruel politics and an arranged marriage from hell, even though everything, from the very beginning, seems to be against her. The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng is a fistfight with Game of Thrones and all those rotting Fantasy tropes of yore.
Right from the start of the novel, action meets revelation after revelation, and Villoso keeps everything turning, twisting into an intricate and fastly paced read, making me feel like to survive this book, the only thing I could do is to keep reading deep into the night. To curb the stress, I made off with a survival kit full of soda and copious amounts of sugar.
Talyien, imprisoned and awaiting the trial against her, and luckily for us, not without her own charismatic thief climbing through the window, that boy that yearns for his disaster queen, even if it makes him seem completely mad. Chess pieces are all laid out before us, one leading to another. From Dai Kaggawa, who keeps her son in his clutches as their people fight, to her father’s political machinations, which have been set to go off in a stream of events that Talyien is determined to resist. But along with her father’s plot to marry her to Yuebek (a very sadistic mashup of a zombie and a prince), she’s up against the magic’s destruction on Jin-Sayeng, which terrorizes and destroys the lives of innocent people. With the enemy she knows, her favorite thief/simp boy, and her irritating ex (a lady that hates her guts, a boy with nothing to his name but a heart, and the boy that lost her heart), she tries to do right by her people.
What makes this series stand out is its brilliance in making readers question the tropes they love and know. Who is the villain, the hero, and what does all of that look like when the chosen one is a Filipino-coded woman making terrible decisions? How does the narrative, and the reader’s sympathies, change when she tells it? What happens when real people are hurt and drowning in their past? In Fantasy, royalty is historically rewarded to the hero. People want to imagine that privilege is only given to those that are selfless heroes, not those that are made to be so powerful that it goes unchecked. The one that’s known for ignoring their people’s plight, the corruption in their home, and the rumors surrounding their marriage all typically remain villains. The stories told about Talyien Orenar are all those things, but through other’s tongues, her story becomes a rumor by wagging tongues and chroniclers determined to tell the story based on their own personal politics. To them, she’s the bitch, the whore, the villain. A powerful queen, privileged, and given everything without working for it. But unlike many fantasy characters, such as a particular blonde Dragonrider placing herself as a victim rather than a perpetrator, Talyien grows into something richer than wealth, and the dragons providing them such a power-filled status, can provide.
Villoso asks us to listen to the story, to see Talyien as something other than through rumor. Dismissing her people’s opinions no longer becomes something in Talyien’s heart, but rather, Talyien listens to their cries in this cruel world that the Ikessars and Orenars created (there’s a truly heartrending scene where her people line up, and she listens to their pain). She is not full of fire without a care to who it hurts, demanding people be for the queen or its Dracarys for you. She’s not a mother asking her children to set fire to things because they pissed her off. Even so, reading her perspective can be quite disturbing as we follow her development. A morally grey character does not always come down to pure white rage when things don’t turn out as they want. The motherhood of Talyien Orenar transcends not just to her relationship with her son, but to her relationship with her father, with this political environment he’s forced her into. The way this whole series is about the love of a mother never quite diminishes. The intimacy of Talyien Orenar, the love she has for her son, and her home hit the heart just right, making everything painfully sweet. That part of her identity takes hold of who she is as a person. Her tendency to rush and smash things is curbed by those she loves. One of the first scenes in this book is a distinctly memorable flashback of Talyien carrying her newborn son in one arm and her sword in the other. Armored to the teeth, but this one is a softie at heart.
While the plot is brilliant, what truly makes the politics of this world interesting is the intimacy the characters have with the world and how those politics impact them. I’m drawn into the characters’ relationships, their hurt caused by this world, and each other. Villoso makes Jin-Sayeng and its politics feel like a person instead of a map. It is flawed and complicated, like her characters, who never seem to align in the ways we want them to because, like us, they’re just people. Each chapter is perfectly paced, with each new revelation, intimate moment, and well-kept secret like a finely written mini-series featuring some real spicy magical family drama.
In this last book, I’m happy to say that so much of the moments I’ve been waiting for have satisfied me on a level that I don’t think I can explain in a single review. Many scenes had me screaming and grinning like someone has just handed me an extra-large bag of candy (I always love some excellent sweets to rot my mouth further). I’m just as enraptured as Talyien, watching Khine slicing onions for breakfast, with the layers of memory, politics, and family that have finally shown us the story. Most of all, Villoso has a gift for making me feel for those characters that inflict pain on Talyien. There’s nothing brilliant about a writer that makes the flawed character without complexity, with their layers, which makes them most human. Characters like Yeshin and Chiha are those characters for me. I found myself hurt for them. But more than anything, I felt the pain that Taylien had for her father, a relationship that reminds me so well of my own. That grief for a man that is your family, wanting to do anything to earn for that love, even at the expense of yourself. That’s the most raw and gut-wrenching part of this series. A father’s relationship with his daughter cuts like nothing else.
It was what drew him to her from the beginning-all that love, given without ever a care or thought on what it did to her. She loved, even when it ruined her.
Told through first-person perspective, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen makes it seem like something that Talyien wrote down in an effort to show her story, with all her faults, not her heroics, but how the political events in her life unfolded. It is clear how much work Villoso put into a world where the decisions made in the text, details that would only become clear later in this story, where backstory and the written word goes up against how history and rumor play into remembering a person’s life…asking the question of who is the villain and who is the hero. Throughout this entire story, from The Wolf of Oren-Yaro to The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng, history and how truth is told is important. It mirrors the real way in which governments and society choose to tell people what’s real and which person’s narrative is the correct one. As I’m writing this, I’m watching Palestinians fighting for their truth and liberation against Israel and western nations using language and images to command the narrative of defense against a people that Israel has oppressed since its fruition. Narratives, perspectives, and truth become critical in how we see political events. Given how much the politics in this series is inspired by the political climate in the Philippines, it makes sense how much it becomes an intimate part of the story K.S. Villoso wanted to tell.
War is so much a part of this book, and these politics are things that Talyien most grapples with herself. How does she do the right thing for her people, a Queen born in Yeshin the Butcher’s image? Dealing with the turmoil of romantic relationships, the stakes rise higher and higher as the lies around her crack at the seams. She’s constantly at war with herself in this book, even though she’s aware that her past does not come before her people’s. This book is where it all comes to a point, and we understand how and why Talyien’s memory becomes key to the series.
In the end, I’m left with brutalized heart but one that I’m sure will heal. I’ve been given everything I need and wanted to know in this beautifully told series. With family drama that even the Skywalkers couldn’t handle, politics that cut straight to the heart, a wonderful thief mad for love, this gastronomic fire-filled cake of a fantasy book is just the correct amount of flavor to fill me years to come.