If We Were Villains – M.L. Rio

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About The Book

Enter 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 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.

My Review

I’m going to start this by saying that I absolutely, unequivocally, 100% loved and adored this novel. If We Were Villains is reminiscent of two books that are firmly on my, ‘shout about them to everybody’ and ‘why on earth haven’t you read this book?’ lists;  The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates (both are wonderful, please go and read them). Set within the confines of an elite school and exploring the lives of seven young Shakespeare students who are fully immersed in his world, If We Were Villains ramps up tension through clever wordplay and imagery leading to a great tragedy and betrayal.

Oliver, the protagonist, begins the book being released from prison after serving a ten year sentence. He is met by Detective Colborne who put him behind bars and wants to know the truth about the events leading to his incarceration. Through flashbacks divided into Acts we learn about the group’s final year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory and the building claustrophobia that consumed them.

Oliver and his friends; Richard, Meredith, Filippa, Alexander, Wren and James are a tight knit group who live, study and act together. They live and breathe Shakespeare; they study him, they act in his plays and their speech is littered with his quotes.  They have their own secret language which makes them impenetrable and almost cult like. They are in their final year and each has adopted a role both within their friendship group and on stage; the hero, the villain, the tyrant, the temptress, the ingénue and the extra. Tensions are ramped up when they are assigned roles in Julius Caeser and the pressures of the play spill over into their day-to-day lives dividing them and causing life-changing rifts. M.L. Rio ramps the tension up so well, we know something will happen but we don’t quite know what and there is an overarching sense of impending doom which oozes from the pages.

I thought the characters were wonderfully created, each had their own distinctive voice and I loved how their relationships with one another played out. Oliver’s friendship with James for instance was beautifully and subtly written and was one of my favourite parts of the novel. I also really liked that the book was divided into Acts as it helped to drive the action and was a lovely nod to the Shakespearean aspects of the novel.

I was astounded to discover that If We Were Villains was a debut book, it is so incredibly well written with beautiful and literary passages that I cannot stop thinking about. The Romeo and Juliet play for example was exquisite, moving and emotional and I was gripped. The use of the play’s words to communicate everything that cannot be said in real life was astounding and some of the passages were incredibly delicate, elegant and erotic.

I have to say that this book really appealed to my English Literature background and geeky Shakespeare love. I am by no means an expert at all, and whilst I think this book could be read and enjoyed knowing nothing of his plays, I think you’d get far more from it if you have at least some knowledge. If We Were Villains really isn’t pretentious or elitist, it is very much a coming of age novel with real depth and layers. Anybody who has been in a tight-knit friendship group or who has lived with a group of people can understand the feelings and emotions experienced by the main players of this novel.

This book is going on my Favourite Book list and I think I am going to give it a second read so I can absorb some more of the beautiful imagery and world that M.L. Rio has created in this extraordinary book.

If We Were Villains is published by Titan Books and is available to buy here, what are you waiting for?







3 thoughts on “If We Were Villains – M.L. Rio

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