Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

30319086Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.

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 Villainsexplores 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.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 7.38.38 pmWhat is more important, that Caesar is assassinated or that he is assassinated by his intimate friends?

 

My favourite elements in a novel are as follows: murder, mayhem, Art, college setting, flirting as banter, danger, jealously, manipulation, and coming-of-age. If We Were Villains features all of these elements in one powerful novel, which lead to me staying up well past two in the morning, my face buried in the book, desperate to reach the end.

It’s hard to explain how much I adore If We Were Villains. A good portion of the beginning was slow — and I almost DNF’d the novel multiple times. But then, I hit a point where everything came together in the most jaw-dropping way. This book is pretentious, not going to lie. That may be why it was so hard for me to fully appreciate it at the beginning, but you learn to love the ostentatious setting, the dramatic characters — you especially learn to love the ornate writing.

At a surface level, If We Were Villains is about seven Shakespearean students at an elite art school, who compete against one another for roles and opportunities of a lifetime, and where one student is murdered, and the remaining six attempt to cover it up. If you take a deeper look, you’ll see that If We Were Villains is a novel about conflicts, both in terms of its characters, and your experience as a reader. As a reader, I both loved and hated this book. As a reader, I wanted to protect every character while simultaneously shake them for their stupidity or obliviousness. But the characters are deeply, deeply flawed people — selfish, manipulative people — who don’t even try to make the best of a bad situation: they ruin it even more.

 

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The main character, Oliver, is perhaps one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read. I really felt for this poor lad. He’s certainly a relatable character, because he’s so often regulated to the role of “sidekick” — both in his personal life and when cast in plays. While he has a close-knit group of friends, he’s continually looked over and sometimes forgotten about because he doesn’t present an immediate threat to anybody: he is an average actor, and is not likely to steal roles or the spotlight from anyone. You can’t help but feel for Oliver in these situations, because he wants more. He wants a better role, even if it’s not the lead; he just wants to be taken seriously. And the one person who does see him in a different way is his best friend, James.

James and Oliver have an … intense relationship. Both of them are jealous of any person who gets close to the other — it’s almost a co-dependent relationship, expect for the fact that they spend a good portion of the novel oblivious to their feelings. At the beginning of the novel, I, like Oliver, was enamoured by James. He’s a sweet, humble person, the only male in their friendship group who can give Richard, their leader and best actor, a run for his money when it comes to acting. But as the novel develops, we see that James is a lot like Richard, the immediate “villain” of the novel. All of the characters in the friendship group — Richard, James, Meredith, Alexander, Filippa, Wren and Oliver — are all villains in some sense, but Richard is paraded as the ultimate one. Actors make a career in duplicity and manipulation, and even though James is the sweetheart of the group, the same is said of him — albeit a more tolerable version of deception.

 

Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 7.38.38 pmWhen it was his turn to speak I watched him closely, uncertain whether he was acting only, or if he and I were both gnashing secrets between our teeth.

 

That probably sounds as though I hate James, when my feelings are the complete opposite. I adore James, same as I adore every character in this novel, even Richard. All of them are important to the story and all play integral roles. They’re all players and any one of them could be lying. Remember that, when you’re reading this glorious book.

If We Were Villains is a slow-paced murder mystery set on a college campus. It’s like a slightly lighter version of The Secret History, and you can see the similarities when reading. But The Secret History doesn’t completely allow you to love the characters in a way that If We Were Villains encourages. In If We Were Villains, you read about the love, life and tragedies of some incredible characters. You won’t be forgetting this book anytime soon.

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8 thoughts on “Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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