By Eleonore Andre

Edited by Mia Tuason

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. 

Enigma, thrill, suspense… what more could you ask for? ‘If We Were Villains’ (2017) is American author M.L. Rio’s debut novel that follows a fictional murder mystery that took place in 1997. 

On the day of Oliver’s release, he is greeted by the detector who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring and wants to know what really happened a decade ago. Following seven friends that have made ruins of each other, are deeply flawed, yet tightly knit together.  

At the Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, 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 decide to switch up the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the play spills dangerously over into real life.  

Illustration by Blanka Herbály

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… 

Most of the novel takes place during Oliver’s 4th and final year at the Conservatory, although the time period shifts. The novel itself is written following the structure of a typical Shakespearean theatrical piece, divided into acts and scenes. Each act opens with a prologue, set in the present, then slips back into the past as the first scene starts. The shift between the regular narrative and the play cues reflects the characters’ slow slip into madness that ensues from the inability to leave a role behind; the lack of differentiating realities so subtle that you start to feel mad yourself. By doing this, Milo also successfully blends prose and play, applying Shakespearean conventions, for instance, a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, an anti-hero, etc.  

If ‘We Were Villains’ is a one-of-a-kind adventure with an unforgettable cast. It is not hard to fall in love with each of these characters (well, most of them at least), because of how deeply flawed they all are, yet still loveable. Complex plot-twists, group work and suspicions. Who to trust? Misleading relationships. Misleading speculations. Two hidden lovers, who held each other in plain sight, though their bodies remained forever separate.  

This book was a real page-turner and I strongly recommend it to readers who are interested in thrillers, entangled plotlines, and mystery plots, as well as Shakespeare. Having read Shakespeare is not required but I recommend having some prior knowledge of plays like ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth,’ Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre.’ The characters frequently refer to lines from certain Shakespearean plays and are extremely useful for a better understanding of what is truly happening, as well as spotting hidden meanings. My last page is severely annotated, definitely a 5-star read.  

Shakespeare’s plays are not only mentioned or alluded to, but his writing is almost characteristic of the characters themselves. ‘If We Were Villains’ is a love letter to Shakespeare. 

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