Book Review: IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M. L. Rio

Title in white on black below a line drawn skull
Genre: Thriller (Dark Academia)
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: standalone
CW: drug abuse


Book cover for IF WE WERE VILLAINS: title in white on black above a dead bird

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day of his release, he is greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, and he wants to know what really happened a decade before.

As a young actor at an elite conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same characters onstage and off – villain, hero, temptress – though he was always a supporting role. But when the teachers change the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into real life.

When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless…

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


I’ve never read Dark Academia before, and I’m therefore not sure if I would love the rest of the sub-genre (trying to find the main genre it fits under was a nightmare!) or if I loved this books so much because of the literature it sat on, devoured, and reshaped. It is a stunning book that is going to stay with me for a long time, demanding to be re-read.

It was as if this book was written with me in mind, contracting all my Shakespeare nerdery into one. It’s not a retelling, but a homage, with lines from a wide variety of plays peppered among the friends’ speech as they talk to one another. I loved that, the quick retorts the built up their life’s centrality on Shakespeare and their familiarity with the material.

The book draws on the all-consuming passion and jealously of the plays, the tragedy that underscores a lot of the plays (even the ones not considered tragedies.) It considers the strange consumption of the text, how it digs in and the duality of trying to understand what the characters are thinking and feeling, while wrestling with your own thoughts – the difficulty of balancing the two when studying it. It is about obsession and secrets, love and the lengths you go to for those you love.

As someone who devours Shakespeare, I loved how the plays were used to stage major scenes. The characters are drama students who only study and perform Shakespeare’s scenes, and their rehearsals and performances take on a second meaning as their personal drama plays out.

The plays used in this book are Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. There are lines quoted from many more plays (and it was so fun playing “spot the play”) but the big sequences where monologues were quotes or the rapid fire exchanges struck back and forth were some of the best, invigorating lines that I knew sometimes by rote from study.

I suppose, at some point, I really ought to read a few more books in this genre!


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