I was so excited to read and love If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. But that didn’t go exactly according to plan…
On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.
Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.
Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.
I was very excited to read this book for a number of reasons, including:
- The synopsis: I was immediately pulled in and just had to read the book.
- I love crime and mystery novels.
- I love Shakespeare.
- I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
A lot of reviews of If We Were Villains compare it to The Secret History, which is a very high compliment. Certainly, they have similar plots and settings: elite school, cult-like friendship group, a tragedy. However, I unfortunately did not enjoy If We Were Villains half as much as I enjoyed The Secret History. And today I’ll explain to you why.
Let’s start on a high note. This book was very enjoyable, and there were many factors that made it so.
This book was honestly so engaging. I was immediately absorbed into the world, and raced through it in under two days, desperate to discover the ending and how Rio would conclude the story. This had a lot to do with…
I loved the structure Rio used in this novel. For one, the whole story is told as a flashback, so you’re constantly wondering and discovering the role of our present-time narrator in the story. This is a lot like The Secret History in that you start at the end and work your way backwards, which I really liked.
In terms of physical structure, this novel is told in a similarly clever and immersive fashion. It is split into five ‘acts’ and the chapters are called ‘scenes,’ just like a Shakespeare play. Likewise, oftentimes the book was written like a script. For example, in place of the dreary and repetitive use of ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ Rio merely used colons and names. Whilst these aren’t really game-changing, it was a really nice touch to help immerse the reader in this theatre-driven world and actually picked up the pace considerably.
The chapters are quite short in If We Were Villains, so I found it relatively easy to read. There were no lengthy descriptive passages, which I was very grateful for. In short, this book was all action, action, action, and I loved that.
OK, so we’ve established If We Were Villains is not a bad book. Now let’s get onto why I didn’t love it.
They weren’t distinct. The synopsis promises 6 character archetypes onstage and off, but I could hardly pick out 3. I kept getting characters mixed up, and ultimately didn’t care about them enough. And when I say care, I mean the good or the bad. I love to hate characters – that’s a sign of good characterisation. However, in If We Were Villains, the characters fell a bit flat and their development seems to have been sacrificed for fast-paced plot.
And sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes that works well. I’m sure for many people, this book being heavily plot-driven didn’t take away from the quality of the book or their reading experience at all. However, that brings me to my next point…
I could see the plot twist coming from miles away, and that frustrated me. I picked up on hints right from the start, and often second-guessed myself because the reveal was taking far too long to be realised. But no, the plot was just dragged out. That being said, this was a fast-paced novel, and I really liked that. I was certainly engaged and wanted to see where it would ultimately take me, but I was disappointed that it ended up right where I expected it to from the start.
Like I mentioned before, if there’s a strong plot, some things can take a backseat – like the characters. However, as poetic as it often was, the writing wasn’t really anything special at all. If we’re being completely honest, most of this novel wasn’t even written by Rio – it was written by Shakespeare. Long, dreary passages that I just wanted to skip over. And this is coming from someone who loves Shakespeare! In my opinion, Rio could have spent a little less time making parallels between her characters and Shakespeare’s and a little more time on making these characters stand out.
Overall, I think this book had quite a few downfalls. But that is certainly not to say that it isn’t a good book. I enjoyed reading it, and I’ve seen quite a number of glowing reviews, so there definitely is a market for this book. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me.