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.
“For someone who loved words as much as I did, it was amazing how often they failed me.”
If We Were Villains is the story of seven actors who are very close to graduating an elite college and achieving all of their ambitions when tragedy suddenly strikes. The thing I loved the most about this book is how art bleeds incessantly into reality. The characters are always so focused on their performances, so much that at times they are having a hard time distinguishing between their thoughts, their emotions, their motivations, and those of the characters they are playing on stage. Likewise, the reader has a hard time understanding what’s real and what is not. You could say that the novel is constantly trying to find an answer to the debate whether art imitates life or life imitates art more.
M.L. Rio has a vast knowledge on Shakespeare and it shows as he almost becomes omnipresent in the novel, orchestrating from behind the scenes everything that happens in the lives of these seven young actors. They live and breathe Shakespeare’s works, they even speak in Shakespearean-style which makes other characters find them odd and some readers might even consider them way too pretentious, but nonetheless, I enjoyed being a part of their world. Their performances always came alive on the page and the building tension made the story so thrilling and easy to follow. From the first college year to the fourth, the students are constantly selected and sifted out until only the very best remain which obviously creates a highly competitive environment. Taking this into consideration, there is no surprise that the last actors standing are very ambitious, easily envious and passionate about what they are doing.
The characters are all presented at first as archetypes (hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue and extra). They have been playing the same characters over and over again during their four years of college and as a consequence, they started to identify with those archetypes, but as James becomes interested in trying new things and getting out of that stereotype, the harmony within the group is forever disrupted. This and the fact that they are being forced in class to reveal their deepest insecurities and question who they really are propels them all into almost-existential crises. And as they try to navigate those and the shifting, explosive relationships between them, they start to realise that they are so much more than those roles they have been attributed.
I especially loved Rio’s take on the temptress trope – the woman who’s there to be beautiful and soak into the attention of men – I thought Meredith was so much more than that, her constant insecurities and hidden desires making her a complex character that was fascinating to read about. There was also Oliver, the main protagonist , the one who rather highlights the strengths of his counterparts instead of showing off himself and that becomes visible off stage as well. We constantly see the others through Oliver’s eyes and somehow, he always succeeds in bringing out those hidden parts, the ones that don’t necessarily play into the archetypes they’re supposed to fit into. He’s also the one that introduces us to the story as a confession to the one who brought him to justice years ago on the charge of murder. He asks for immunity to the ones involved, making it obvious from the very beginning that nothing is as it seems.
As someone who adores the dark academia genre, I’ve predicted that I will love this book ardently, but I wasn’t expecting to get so invested in these characters, to see such a great analysis on what it means to be an actor – how you can lose yourself while trying to get into your character and what it means to be so passionate about something that you can let it destroy you willingly. Rio played so well with the darkness inside each of the protagonists, using jealousy and betrayal to build such intricate plot-lines. This close-knit group of friends slowly started to suspect one another, mistrust each other and it all became a terrific journey of ‘what happened? who did it? And most of all, are they going to get away with it?’ The mystery was very well crafted and I had a great time trying to figure out what really happened. The book is magnificently written and you will surely be drawn in the drama of these characters.
Have you read If We Were Villains? What did you think about it?
Do you enjoy reading books focused on dark academia as well? What are your favourites from the genre?