If We Were Villains (M.L.Rio)

I’ve been seeing If We Were Villains on best books of 2018 lists, and bookstagram, and then Queen V.E.Schwab posted that she’d loved it and the balance of people saying this book was incredible set it up to be highly over-rated. Somehow, despite the hype (or perhaps because of it) I can join in singing the praises of this novel. I do have quite a few critiques, but they somehow work within the confines of this novel. It’s Shakespearian, it’s Dramatic (AF) and it’s murder (plain and simple).

Title: If We Were Villains
Author: M.L.Rio
Published: 2017
Pages: 422
Format: paperback (Library)

Secrets carry weight, like lead

~If We Were Villains~

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a crime he may or may not have committed while a student at a prestigious Shakespeare training college. On the day of his release, the detective on the case greets him – he is retiring from the force and wants to know the truth of what happened, off the record, ten years before. And so starts a tale of dizzying proportions: of a group of theatre students playing the same role onstage and off, so wrapped up in the performance and their friendship. Oliver, always the supporting role. Until the teachers change the casting, and the dynamics of the group change. And when one of the seven friends winds up dead after a cast party, the group of friends have to convince the police (and themselves) that it was just an accident.

“Actors are by nature volatile—alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”

~If We Were Villains~

This is a book that will definitely appeal to theatre kids, though it is super accessible to non-theatre, non-Shakespeare loving students. As an ex-theatre kid, and lifelong Shakespeare lover, I picked this up for the theatrical elements, and it was exhilarating for the descriptions of the buzz of performing. But this book is also highly pretentious – Oliver as a narrator has a deep and abiding adoration of the conservatoire he is in, he and his friends converse in lines from Shakespeare, and recite poetry to each other while playfighting. It’s easy to get the gist, but there are whole sections where Oliver narrates each section of the play he happened to be performing (it gets a bit tedious – I get it, you’re a Shakespearean) but, for the most part, the in-context use of narrative really works. These are kids who have completely immersed themselves in Shakespeare and feed off their collective obsession. So, in context, it works.

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”

~If We Were Villains~

A story ruled by passion. Emotions run super high, and because their are only seven of them in fourth year, doing Tragedies, everything seems to have been dialled up to eleven. By all accounts, at first appearance their characters are stereotypes – but then you start to see under the facades that Oliver has seen for four years, and it feels (as a spectator with the passage of time and Oliver’s narration) to be a boiling pot about to bubble over. The characters in the book echo the character types in the plays they are so enamoured with, but then they all start to shift and it is. so. gripping.

“For someone who loved words as much as I did, it was amazing how often they failed me.”

~If We Were Villains~

Structurally, If We Were Villains is set up like a play, a performance – split into Acts which each Act covering a section of the narrative, with a prologue where Oliver is talking to Detective Colborne before the next part of the tale begins. It’s quite a nifty little technique, as it sucks you out of the story just enough before pushing you ungainly back into it again. Aesthetically, I love that the cover is black and the pages are sprayed. It’s a dark academia book and it kinda looks it.

I can’t say I loved this book – love is the wrong word. It was insane, and gripping, and pretentious and consuming. It’s a murder mystery, and a conspiracy, and a performance. It’s got so many layers, the onion got jealous. I get the feeling that this is one of those books where you find something different each time you read. Because as interesting as the lead up to the Big Death, the aftermath is even more interesting!

I highly recommend!


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