Why You Should Read “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio


Photo by Yetunde Olagbegi

Pictured here is the cover of my copy of the “If We Were Villains” e-book. Normally, I don’t judge a book by its cover, but you have to admit this one is really cool.

Disclaimer: This review does not contain any spoilers. It will, however, include some of my favorite quotes from the novel for intrigue, but none of them give away key points of the plot.

“Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”

“I blame him for all of it.”

This book fascinated me from the very first page which is not something I can say for all the books I have read, even my favorites. If you are looking for a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, has complex characters, and makes you question everything, look no further than “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio. 

The book follows the protagonist, Oliver, who has just been released from prison after serving ten years for a crime he may or may not have committed. The lead investigator on the case, Colborne, has recently quit being a police officer and begs Oliver to reveal the truth of what happened on the infamous night in question during a party that landed Oliver in prison.

And so, begins a tale that follows seven drama students at an elite university for the arts who are in their final year of school. The seven of them—Filippa, Alexander, Wren, Richard, Meredith, Oliver, and James—are as close as seven people can be, they argue, they love, and above all else, they are obsessed with the works of Shakespeare. This year they are supposed to perform a tragic play but find themselves facing a tragedy of their own when one of their closest friends is found dead. 

The story is split into two timelines—the present, where Oliver returns to the scene of the crime with Colborne, and the past, where what happened that night is revealed, and the reader gets to see the ramifications of the character’s death on the entire friend group. To me, this book was a perfect storm of elements. These kids are in love with Shakespeare, so much so that they make their own lives a work of poetry in the process, yet their real life resembles that of any common tragedy which I loved. There’s a mix of resentments and rivalries, unrequited longing, the exploration of love and romance, onstage fighting with real-life consequences. 

‘“For us, everything was a performance. A small, private smile catches me off guard and I glance down, hoping he won’t see it. “Everything poetic.”’

One of the factors I found most intriguing about the novel was how reality and art become blurred. The characters are so focused on playing these characters on stage, that at times they cannot seem to pry themselves from their performance and become their selves again. They are so used to playing the same characters on stage—hero, villain, tyrant, sidekick—that they begin to emulate those same characteristics off-stage, and one of them ends up dead because of it.

This book is 100% a love letter to theatre, but you can still enjoy it even if you aren’t a fan of theatre. But if you are looking for something thrilling, and haunting, and very atmospheric, this book is definitely worth giving a try. I am a huge fan of the dark academia genre, which this book fits perfectly into as it explores the power of emotion, words, and intricate characters. The book is split into five different “acts” each including numerous scenes. Rio does a fantastic job at integrating Shakespearean plays and the hidden meanings of his works into the novel. The dialogue resembles that of a play script, which is a small detail I found largely impactive. Each act shines a light on one of his plays from King Lear, to Julius Caesar, to Romeo and Juliet, to Macbeth, and so much more.

“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.”

All in all, I really enjoyed reading this novel. The book grapples with love, whether it be desperate, platonic, hopeless, or even impossible. It talks about sacrifice and the chain of events that lead one to do it. The novel discusses the fine line that exists between reality and illusion in the lives of young, artistic, and wild souls. The book is so beautiful. Like really, truly beautiful. There is so much more to it than words on a page. 

I really did not know what I was expecting when I read this book, but now it is one of my favorite books of all time. If you want to embark on an adventure where villains become victims, victims become villains, and the line between good and evil becomes blurred, I encourage you to go to your local bookstore, library, or e-book resource (you can find the link to the article I wrote about using Libby here), and get this book because you will not regret it!