If We Were Villians
If We Were Villains is the long-anticipated debut of author M. L. Rio. I knew the author as a blogger long before I knew her as an author, and my impressions of her were that she is intelligent, witty, and bold, with a background in theater and Shakespeare, so it’s no mere coincidence that her novel is as bold, intelligent, and witty as she is.
Oliver Marks was one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college in Illinois. This tight knit cast of characters were vetted over the previous 3 years in college, and their talent and dedication to the Bard has proven them worthy of a 4th year in school. When the novel opens, Oliver is finishing up a ten year sentence in prison for the murder of one of his classmates. After ten years of silence, Oliver decides to finally disclose the truth of what happened that fateful night.
This book is incredibly clever. I enjoyed the slow piecing together of the reality of the present with the events of the ten years ago. Throughout the entire novel, there is an atmosphere of foreboding. It’s tense and suspenseful, like the moment before lightning strikes.
If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. That being said, without Shakespeare, this book would not exist. His words are heavily quoted in the book, from little references and phrases he invented, to direct quotes spoken by the actors. The book is told in five acts, and the characters in the book embody roles he created: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, and everything in between.
With that in mind, I think it’s important to note that readers with limited or no prior knowledge of Shakespeare might struggle a bit. I was an English major in college who took a trip to London specifically to study Shakespeare, and there were times that I wish I had brushed up a bit before starting the book. The actors perform Julius Caesar, Macbeth (ahem, I mean the Scottish play), Romeo & Juliet, and King Lear.
Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence.
Fair warning—this book is a tragedy. Much like the plays performed within the story, it does not have a happy ending. However, it was a compulsively readable literary thriller with a satisfying conclusion, one that leaves you with as many questions as you have answers. I look forward to reading more from M. L. Rio.