The Wolf of Oren-Yaro and Some Playful Metafiction
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso is a fantasy novel about a young queen traveling in a hostile land.
Queen Talyien is the narrator—she's messy and violent and also cunning and sometimes vulnerable. Her tone is conversational, and her approach to storytelling seems straightforward—until we reach a very interesting moment.
Talyian has been separated from her guards and must trust a stranger who admits he is also a con artist. Here is a snippet of their conversation. The stranger speaks first, and Talyian answers.
"You're Jinsein, and not one who lives around here either. I've never seen you in the immigrants' quarter—I think I'd have remembered you if I did."
"And here I've been telling people it's impossible to tell from appearance alone."
Who are these "people" that Talyian has been talking to? It's the reader! Just a few pages earlier the same sentiment has been narrated:
The Jinsein and the Zarojo share one thing in common: you can't really tell our ethnicity from looks alone.
What a fun little bit of metafiction! I want to think about all that it does for the story.
But first, the logistics. The two passages I quoted are in the same chapter, only nine pages apart, so the reader is likely to encounter them in the same sitting and thus remember. I also notice how the sentences are not identical but echo each other very closely. "You can't really tell" is like "it's impossible to tell" and "from appearance alone" is like "from looks alone." This careful language helps the reader catch what's happening.
And when I catch it, I'm delighted. It's like making eye contact with a celebrity. I like to feel seen! And, yes, it does pull me out of the story momentarily—but only to encourage me to dive back in, in a deeper way and with my senses heightened.
It also, instantly, makes the narrator more complicated. Talyian knows more than I thought she did: she knows about me. It's easy to mistake a young queen for a naïve one, especially when we see her in vulnerable moments and watch her make mistakes. This sudden revelation makes me understand her as deeper and wiser, a holder of secrets.
Not only is she proving her cunning, she's showcasing her confidence. This queen is young and, except for a few advisors, alone in the world. She's far from her home and suddenly separated even from her guards. It's a moment when she might shift from hero to victim—and I don't mean in the sense of what happens around her but in how she reacts to it. This playful command of the conversation is one way she holds on. She is at the mercy of this world she doesn't know, but she still has time to give the reader a wink.
More important, perhaps, than the specific knowledge I gain, is just knowing that her brain can hold more than she tells. I begin to wonder what else she knows, what other secrets she keeps. Theory of mind is activated, and so she feels like a full and complex person.
Additionally, her awareness of the reader makes me feel the artifice of her storytelling. I realize I'm in a controlled tale and that this narrator might have an agenda I'm unaware of. There's suddenly danger, which is exciting. It makes not only the narrator but the story more complex. It's compelling to be in the care of a calculating narrator, one with an agenda for her telling, with secrets, and one who can remain a step ahead of her listeners.
And I really love that it all happens at once. The danger hits me in a moment of playfulness. And it's a playfulness that also enhances the conversational tone of the story and invites me further into the world. So I'm being warned and welcomed in the same moment. When danger and play and welcome occur simultaneously, the contradiction creates depth. Paradoxical moments, when the reader is inspired to feel more than one emotion at once, are a great way to transform the linear slog of one-word-at-a-time into an experience that is felt in space and time and even in the body. I think it's unsettling in the best way and makes the story both more immersive and more complex.