Every so often a book comes along that features everything you look for in a fantasy story. For me, that’s intriguing magic, swoon-worthy romance, whip-smart characters, life-or-death adventures, witty banter and, ideally, a broody love interest with a secret heart of gold. Imagine my delight then, when I picked up Hannah Nicole Maehrer’s Assistant to the Villain and discovered it had all of these romantasy centred things and then some.
Maehrer’s viral TikTok series turned novel follows Evie Sage as she finds unusual employment working for the kingdom’s most notorious criminal. With an ailing father and young sister to support, Evie’s job prospects are severely limited. So when she quite literally stumbles into the Villain and he offers her a position as his assistant, it feels a lot like fate. Sure, she’s not exactly thrilled by the severed heads suspended from the ceiling or the tortured screams echoing through her workplace, but she’s more than a little smitten with her boss. Because not only is the Villain surprisingly young and attractive, but he also seems to have developed an inopportune soft spot for his loyal, level-headed new assistant.
Evading capture is all part of the Villain’s wicked escapades, but when someone begins targeting his empire from the inside, endangering everything he’s worked so hard to build, it becomes clear that there’s a rat amongst his employees. Together, Evie and the Villain must figure out who is sabotaging his work and make them pay before it’s too late. But working so closely with the Villain makes it even harder for Evie to ignore her ever-growing attraction towards him. If only he shared her feelings… oh, wait…
Are we changing the subject because you’re embarrassed that you were an Evil Overlord in Distress?”
Playing with much-loved romantasy tropes, Assistant to the Villain is the most fun you’ll have whilst reading a fantasy book. The story is split between Evie and the Villain’s perspectives, gifting readers with not one but two witty, daring and endearing characters to fall in love with. Evie is the devoted, kind-hearted daughter and sister who just wants to provide a good life for her family, whilst the villain more than lives up to his name, maiming, torturing and generally making those who wrong him suffer painfully. But the Villain might not be quite as evil as everyone thinks, and Evie might just share some of her boss’ more vengeful qualities. It’s these clever little twists to the characters and the wider tale that makes Maehrer’s debut such an engaging and inventive book.
Whilst this initially feels like Evie’s story, giving the Villain his own voice is a genius move. It stops the book from feeling one-sided and allows readers to understand the Villain’s true heart, even as he remains a mystery to Evie – the one person who seeks to know and understand the man behind the terrifying, temperamental facade. The dynamic between the two characters is a genuine joy to read; it’s clear they’re both doomed to fall for each other from the start but they do an admirable job of resisting (at least the Villain does, Evie is a little less subtle in her drooling). Fantasy fiction is full of will-they-won’t-they couplings but Evie and the Villain have instantly become one of my favourites.
A good romantasy book features heart-fluttering romance and transportive fantasy, but a really good romantasy book knows how to balance those two things so that one doesn’t outweigh the other. Maehrer weaves the romance and fantasy elements perfectly, whilst also crafting a cast of loveable side-characters for Evie and the Villain to affectionately bicker and banter with. Throw in some mythical creatures, some classic fairytale vibes, some rogue royals and some dysfunctional family drama, and Assistant to the Villain is every bit as entertaining as the author’s viral comedy skits.
Romantasy readers aren’t exactly short on books to steal our time, money and hearts, but if you love a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has a fun grumpy x sunshine dynamic, Assistant to the Villain is the cosy romantic fantasy to take you from summer into autumn. It might feel more YA than its target adult demographic, but that only adds to the light-hearted feel of the book. As the story continues, there’s potential to explore the deeper, darker elements of the characters’ backstories but even if Maehrer doesn’t, it’ll still be a series I’ll read for the sheer pleasure of seeing what happens to Evie and the Villain next.
Assistant to the Villain is published by Penguin on 14 September 2023