◐ Book Name: If We Were Villains
◐ Author: M.L. Rio
◐ Genre: Mystery Thriller
◐ Pages: 354
◐ Synopsis (Goodreads):
Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.
Recommended for lovers of dark academia, found family, a secret romance, mystery, and you’d better be madly in love with Shakespeare
◐ Review: 3/5 ⭐
This book began rather promising. It drew me in quickly, thanks to the moody atmosphere, the setting of a gothic-like, pretentious art school, and theatre students obsessed with Shakespeare. It reminded me simultaneously of Dead Poet’s Society and Harry Potter.
As any passionate creative knows, we fit in a small niche where only other creatives could understand the woes of being so. This book expounds on the isolation and misunderstanding that can arise from pursuing an unconventional career, and the camaraderie that arises when met with others with similar passions.
The story intrigued me and was enthralling enough to keep me reading until the end. These days, I appreciate a good plot-driven book. Although predictable at times, I still found myself wanting to continue. The author incorporates parallel timelines so that we are flashing back and forth in time, which helps increase the suspense.
All that aside, I did find several faults with the book that detracted from my enjoyment of it. One of the main ones is the heavy quoting of Shakespeare. Even as a Shakespeare lover myself, I found it dull and unnecessary. The author includes Shakespeare quotes into the very dialogue between the characters, supposedly because these theatre students are so inundated with the bard that they use their words as their own, even in everyday speech. To me, it read as lazy.
Additionally, I wasn’t thrilled with the flatness of many of the characters, particularly the females, one of whom had no personality and only a gorgeous face and body, and that is pretty much everything anyone has to say about her. The primary antagonist, for lack of a better word, is such a caricature of a schoolyard bully that one has no sympathy for him.
The only thing that felt authentic to me was the relationship between our main character/narrator, Oliver, and his roommate James. Yes, they gave me the tiny inklings of a feeling.
Sometimes the ending of a book can utterly ruin the entire thing. I’m happy to report that there was nothing of the sort here. On the contrary, the ending to If We Were Villains has to be one of the best I’ve read. It gave me goosebumps; believe me, that’s saying a lot.
I did enjoy reading this book overall. It was entertaining enough to get me out of a two-month reading slump (I read it in two days), and I thought it well-crafted for a debut novel. For all its faults, I would not be opposed to reading more of M.L. Rio’s works in the future.
How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance.
“The thing about Shakespeare is, he’s so eloquent … He speaks the unspeakable. He turns grief and triumph and rapture and rage into words, into something we can understand. He renders the whole mystery of humanity comprehensible.” I stop. Shrug. “You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”
Anything can feel like punishment if it’s taught poorly.
You can’t quantify humanity. You can’t measure it—not the way you mean to. People are passionate and flawed and fallible. They make mistakes. Their memories fade. Their eyes deceive them.
But that is how a tragedy like ours or King Lear breaks your heart—by making you believe that the ending might still be happy, until the very last minute.
“You were real to me. Sometimes I thought you were the only real thing.”
Nothing is so exhausting as anguish.