Title: Villager (Quelmirian Duology, #1)
Author: Savanna Roberts
Genre(s): fiction, YA, fantasy
Length: 272 pages
Published: July 10, 2019
When I saw that Savanna was planning a blog tour for her latest release, Villager, I was quick to hop on board and sign up to write a review. I follow her on Instagram and was intrigued by her posts about her storyworld and worldbuilding as well as the sneak-peak quotes—plus, it’s so important to support fellow authors, especially when they self-publish. I’d never read any of her writing, even though her earlier book, Smoke and Mirrors, is on my TBR list, and I don’t usually read YA or fantasy, yet I still figured that I would enjoy Villager (spoiler: I was right).
Villager follows Vivianna, the hard-working and dutiful daughter of a wood worker and a thread dyer, as she takes a job at the royal palace on the island of Quelmir in order to help provide for her father and younger brother after her mother runs off with another man. There, her path intersects with Nex, the prince and heir to the Quelmirian throne, as well as the rest of the royal family, Nex’s cunning cousin Kallimene, Nex’s best friend Tyde, and other fellow servants like Caela and Peeter. Vivianna slowly comes to learn that there’s more happening that what meets the eye—not just with Nex, whose kindness toward her contradicts his reputation for being short-tempered and unapproachable, but with everyone working at the palace—and soon she’s caught up in the fight for the throne.
Due to what I normally read, I’m used to books having complex prose that takes a while to settle into—and sometimes a while to understand entirely. Reading Villager was a deviation from my norm in that Robert’s style lacks a lot of that heady complexity, but I don’t consider that a flaw. In fact, I think the ease and accessibility of her writing style is a strength, especially since this book is YA. And, just because her prose is more straightforward and easy to read does not mean it lacks style or meaning. Here’s an example from page 4:
“We’re supposed to avidly thank Sula, the goddess of the sun, for her generosity. Without the rays she provides us, we would be freezing to death, as well as starving to death. We would have no food, no warmth, and no clothing; savages, inhabiting a cruel land. But sometimes I think Sula could do without some prayers – we wish to be warm, not smothered.”
This section, and many others, reads with a conversational tone that lends itself well to understanding the specific point of view of the character heading up the chapter (multiple first-person perspectives are shown throughout the book). Additionally, each perspective is distinct from the other—Vivianna’s chapters read differently than Nex’s, for example—but there’s still harmony with the book as a whole. My only complaint about the style is that certain words or phrases are sometimes repeated throughout a paragraph, chapter, or over the course of multiple chapters, which made me want new descriptions of a character’s feelings or setting details as the repetition continued. I also would have liked to see more vivid descriptions of the setting, since the storyworld was unique and held so many interesting cultural and worldbuilding elements.
Villager mainly focuses on two characters—Vivianna and Nex—although other characters like Kallimene, Tyde, Caela, and Reeve also play important and interesting roles, and the fringe cast were also compelling.
Of the two main characters, Vivianna was definitely my favorite: she’s diligent, hard-working, caring, thoughtful, and (deep down) a bit of an idealistic dreamer. Her dedication to her family, especially after her mother leaves them, revealed strength of character that is admirable—in fact, I wish there were more interactions with her family, since I enjoyed the dynamic with her father and brother a lot. There were times when she seemed a bit naïve, but it never came across as willful ignorance or silliness but rather her being unaccustomed to how life at the palace operated or wanting to think the best of people.
Nex provided a good contrast against Vivianna’s down-to-earth and thoughtful nature. As mentioned earlier, Nex has a reputation of being short-tempered, and he does indeed struggle with anger toward his family as well as his current life situation and the villagers he will one day have to care for when he is king. But, he also struggles with anxiety, which I found to be an interesting addition that added depth to his turmoil. I wasn’t always a fan of his behavior—his inability to control his temper in important situations at times felt immature—but the dynamic of his family and how he handled certain important plot points was still interesting enough to keep me reading despite the parts of his character that I did not like.
The rest of the side characters were all distinct from one another, especially when they interacted together in various scenes: Kallimene, whose charm and ability to relate to others masked cunning and ill-will, particularly against his cousin Nex; Caela, who was ever mischievous and flirtatious but also welcoming to those around her; Tyde, who provided a source of brightness against the other brooding members of the royal family yet also kept his own secrets; and Reeve, whose smart-alecky personality and self-preservation tendencies also held a greater sense of right and wrong. I also really enjoyed the dynamic of the royal family—Nex, his sister Fiatina, and their mother and father—as it revealed a lot about their characters as well as the strain that carrying on tradition was putting on all of them.
Two final notes. One, I really liked that Roberts decided to show a negative mother figure, especially one so selfish and non-nurturing but also not stereotypically evil or mentally unwell. I rarely see that role pop up in stories although it happens in real life, and it was refreshing, in a way. It also really contrasted against Vivianna’s responsible nature and care for her father and brother, and lent to learning interesting aspects about how Quelmirians viewed and dealt with infidelity. Two, there was one relationship that I wasn’t a huge fan of, though there was nothing overtly wrong with it—Vivianna and Nex. Their early interactions were intriguing and very telling of each other’s personality, but their romantic progression felt too sudden, too quick for me to get fully on-board. There were some interesting Beauty and the Beast parallels (which, I don’t know if that was intended or not), but I would have liked to see the build up to their relationship take more time or been elaborated a bit more and seen Vivianna not be so wary of him.
Villager is divided into four sections: The Betrayal, The Palace, The Death, and The Trade. Roberts did a good job at building up each section of the plot—nothing felt illogical, too sudden, or not thought-out, and the pace of events made me want to keep reading. The story also included a lot of interesting twists or unexpected plot points (no spoilers, of course); there was one part in particular, a little over half-way through the book, that I was not anticipating in terms of genre/plot points but enjoyed a lot. Part 3 was especially intriguing in this regard. The only part of the plot that did not make sense was something full of spoilers in part four, where a character’s sudden decision seemed a bit rushed from my perspective, but it wasn’t enough for me to feel as if the story as a whole did not make sense.
While worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of being a writer, I don’t often read stories that showcase an entirely unfamiliar setting (that’s what I get for reading mostly classics, historical fiction, and nonfiction)—so, reading Villager was a deviation from the norm in the best way. Quelmir is a tropical island nation with a society built upon traditions, ceremonies, and devotion to their gods, and Roberts was able to showcase much of their culture throughout the course of the book. She also incorporated details about their specific work and daily chores, their seasons/weather and ecosystems on the island, their clothing, their daily and celebratory food (which I always enjoy), their politics, their history, and their mythology/religion. It felt natural since Quelmirians—whether royalty or from villages—based so much of their lives upon seasonal celebrations and observances. There is also, toward the end, some hints at magic being part of the storyworld, but it was woven into the story in such a way that it did not feel overpowering or stereotypical, which I appreciate since fantasy is not my usual genre. My only complaint? I wanted to learn even more about Quelmir! I was especially interested in their ideas about ethics and morality, since it is hinted that divorce and adultery are not common and also severely punished, as well as more about their religious beliefs and their political/social history. Since Villager is book one of a two-book series, I’m hoping that Roberts will incorporate even more worldbuilding details about Quelmir in the next installation.
Objectionable content is overall low. There is some swearing, but it’s minimal and not distracting. It’s implied that two characters sleep together and another couple commits adultery (the woman gets pregnant as a result); beyond that, the only sexual content actually described is kissing/physical affection, longing gazes, and a statue of a naked woman that one of the side characters carves (though the description is basically what I just wrote—nothing more than what you’d find at an art museum). A few characters are killed, one character is stabbed, and other characters are threatened with violence, but none of the descriptions are gruesome.
As I mentioned in the overview section, YA and fantasy are not my genres. In some way, I feel unqualified to fully review a book that’s both of those genres. What do I know about what makes YA or fantasy books good to the people who love them? There’s always some level of distance that a person feels when they read a book that’s not their usual go-to. Even as I read, there were times that I realized that dynamics or stylistic choices that Roberts made weren’t innately bad or poorly done—they were just more characteristic of YA than what I usually read, or perhaps not my personal preference.
But, all that being said, I think the fact that Villager is not my usual genre makes the following statement that much more important: once I started reading Villager, I kept reading. In fact, I spent several hours finishing the book when I had other things I needed to do. It wasn’t just that Robert’s writing style was easy to read, but I was interested to see where the plot led, how the tension built, what the characters would do. The ability to pull a reader into a story—especially a reader who isn’t firmly in your intended audience—is a huge deal. So, while there were certainly things that I could point out that weren’t exactly my cup of tea, I really enjoyed Villager and I know I’ll be asking for another ARC of the second book in the Quelmirian Duology once Savanna finishes it (and I bet that those of you out there who loved YA and/or fantasy will probably enjoy it even more than I did). Thus, I give Villager 3.5/5 stars.