✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Author: M. L. Rio
Genre: Mystery / Dark Academia
Publication year: 2017
Content warnings: Major character death, murder, violence, PTSD, depression, suicide, self-harm, slut-shaming, homophobia (mentioned), transphobia (mentioned).
Following his release from prison, Oliver Marks recalls the events that led up to the crime that landed him in prison, making some shocking revelations along the way.
What I liked
- Writing style
- Setting and atmosphere
- Shakespearean influences
- Depiction of queer relationships/identity
- The ending
What I disliked
- Under-developed characters (in some instances)
- Predictable plot
Plot and Structure
The story follows Oliver and his friends who are students at a prestigious Shakespearean acting university. Beginning with Oliver’s release from prison as an adult, it returns to the past to reveal the events that led up to the death that landed Oliver in prison and to uncover whether Oliver really was the murderer after all. The plot was somewhat predictable, but no less enjoyable for it. It was well-paced and thoughtfully mapped out, with enough clues scattered throughout to keep me engaged and well-timed reveals that ensured the mystery wasn’t dragged out unnecessarily. The conclusion was emotionally hard-hitting and tragic but satisfying in true Shakespearean style.
Structurally, it takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s plays and is broken down into acts and scenes rather than chapters. Those that are familiar with Shakespeare’s works will recognise how heavily influenced the book is by Shakespeare from the themes to the language, characters and structure. The majority of the story is set in the past when Oliver was at school but does alternate between past and present. The structure serves the plot which was constantly moving. Generally, it’s very plot-focused with the plot driving the characters forward rather than the other way around.
I loved M. L. Rio’s writing style. Her passion for language and Shakespeare shone throughout the book; her writing is beautifully emotive and authentically honest. The descriptive nature of her writing style created a vivid imagery of the setting and her ability to craft an atmospheric tension throughout reminded me of Daphne Du Maurier. Similarly, her capacity to convey human emotion through the internal processes, behaviour and actions of the characters is incredible. I felt deeply connected to Oliver because his emotions were tangible throughout the story. My one criticism would be that some of the dialogue between characters sometimes felt awkward or stunted, but I really put this down to the fact that the characters and their relationships weren’t always fully developed.
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.
Characters and Relationships
As a character-driven reader, the characters were the biggest con of the book for me. There were 7 main characters that formed the friendship group that were at the centre of the story. Excluding the protagonist Oliver and his best friend James, the other characters were underdeveloped and felt like caricatures. Every character fit a stereotype whether it was the “mean girl” or the “nerd” etc. and this occasionally led to some troublesome prejudices and bigoted comments. However, these characters weren’t written to be fully-realised individuals, they were written to fulfil a purpose within the narrative, and that’s exactly what they did. This meant that I was able to overlook the lacklustre characters, even as a character-driven reader, because they fit within the type of story that they were in and served the plot well. Oliver’s development also made up for the other characters.
As the protagonist, Oliver was given the most development and despite being a deeply flawed and sometimes frustrating character, I connected with him and sympathised with him. I particularly appreciated the depiction of Oliver’s queerness which was presented as something that was simply part of him rather than something to be used as a plot-point. Although Oliver’s sexuality was never explicitly labelled, I felt it was one of the better portrayals of bisexuality that I’ve seen in contemporary literature and appreciated how M. L. Rio wrote the “love triangle” (I use quotations because it’s not technically a love triangle in the traditional sense) and Oliver’s romantic relationships.
In regards to relationships, most of the friendships within the core 7 were generally superficial and standard. There were a few friendships that received more attention and were endearing, such as Oliver’s friendship with Filippa, but there was one relationship which stole the show – the one between Oliver and James. This was a complex, well-written and tragic relationship. It’s this relationship which was at the core of the entire book and elevated it to the next level for me.
We Are Villains is not typically a book I would reach for but was a pleasant surprise and one of my favourite reads of 2021. It’s a passion piece devoted to Shakespeare, drawing huge influence from Shakespeare’s works which are scattered throughout in the writing style, structure, plot, style and characters. This created an atmospheric, fast-paced dark academia steeped in drama, with a well-built mystery and satisfying ending. These components came together to make up for the shortcomings of the underdeveloped characters, which were used to serve the plot rather than being fully realised individuals. I appreciated the inclusion of queer characters and that these characters were able to exist as people without their identity being used as a plot-point. The plot is well written and well-paced with a fantastic pay-off. Overall, I immensely enjoyed reading If We Were Villains and feel that the book does a fantastic job at taking Shakespearean works and adapting them into an original story that appeals to modern audiences.
I’d recommend If We Were Villains if:
You’re looking for a dark academia with a well-written mystery, lots of drama, Shakespearean influences, queer romance and a tragic ending.
Have you read If We Were Villains or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.