Cover Image: If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

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Member Reviews

Incredible first novel by a debut author. I love the dark academia vibe and lovers of The Secret History by Donna Tartt will find comfort in this story and set of characters.
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I loved this book when I first read it and have revisited it since. The campus setting feels so real and lived in. This is The Secret History but for theatre majors!
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One of my best friends is an actress and her other friend group is filled with pretentious Shakespeare-loving kids, too, who I often try to avoid because I find them too attention-craving and annoying. Sooooo yeah, that's what these characters felt like for me. I just wanted to kind of get away from them. I think for Shakespeare lovers, this will be of big time interest though. 
That being said, the writing itself was good and the mystery elements were compelling, so it was overall enjoyable.
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I loved this book! I love mysteries and police procedurals, so of course I loved that aspect of it, but I also loved how tied-in this was to conservatory life and the world of theater. I've been interested in Shakespeare for a long time, and this is a perfect book for anyone interested in both theater and in murder mysteries. I've also been a fan of M.L. Rio's blog for a long time, and her writing is just beautiful. This book lived up to all my expectations, and was certainly a very unique idea, but fell into some cliches and lacked that spark that all my five-star books have.
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Well developed characters and plot.
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I've been waiting to read this, because I have followed the author on Tumblr for a long time. It was worth the wait
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This was not a good book, but it sure was readable. I didn't have the highest of expectations, but it certainly seemed like it'd be up my alley -- I've read "The Secret History" and I like Shakespeare -- but I found myself incredibly frustrated. 
I made the mistake of skimming some of the reviews, which made me think that some great twist was waiting at the end. A spoiler: it is not.

The writing is ... fine. It's fine, I guess. Rio makes the mistake of thinking that an ability to quote Shakespeare often and at length is a sign of cleverness. It's not; it's simply infuriating. There is no real dialogue in the book -- every question, every remark is bookended with huge chunks of Shakespearean lines. The characters, who are equally obsessed with Shakespeare and painfully arrogant -- are barely drawn pastiches of every other character in a boarding school novel. 

Ultimately, the book was compelling. I'm not sure why I found myself continuing to read this book I have so little love for. I will admit, I did enjoy the staging of the plays. They were rare glimpses into an actual beating heart hiding behind the pretension and flimsy narrative.
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Loved this book
Didn't want it to end
Highly recommended
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This book surprised me. I was utterly shocked how invested I was in this book. Very well written and relatable characters
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We all have our things...some people love books, some people can't get enough of home renovation, some people can tell you the entire history of the American presidency. Some people are into Shakespeare. It's a group of those people who are super duper into Shakespeare that's the focus of M. L. Rio's If We Were Villains. The book mostly follows the senior year at an exclusive arts college of a group of seven Shakespearean acting students. We know something big and bad happened, because the book opens with one of the seven (Oliver, who will be our protagonist) being released from prison after a decade. He agrees to return to his alma mater and speak to the detective who put him behind bars to finally reveal the true story of what happened all those years ago.

Based on the length of sentence alone, it shouldn't be surprising that what happened was that someone died. The who and the how I'll leave for the reading of it, because the bigger issue is what happened after that person died. The way the remaining members of the group deal with the death, and how it changes their relationships with each other, both on and off the stage. They'd each developed a little niche over their years together (the king, the femme fatale, the good guy, the ingenue, the villain, etc), and the removal of one of the spokes of the wheel renders the structure unstable.

If you've read The Secret History, a lot of that will sound pretty familiar to you. Indeed, it's pretty obvious that Donna Tartt's debut novel was a significant source of inspiration for Rio for her own. And that's fine, Tartt doesn't own the concept of a tight-knit group of students studying an obscure subject at an exclusive private college dealing with the fallout from the death of one of their own. But here's the thing: if you're going to write a book with strong parallels to a novel that's been consistently popular since it was published 25 years ago, you have do it at least as well or better. And although I want to make it clear that I did enjoy reading If We Were Villains (I did love The Secret History, after all), Rio didn't quite hit that mark.

The characters fall a little too neatly into the roles they fill onstage: Richard, the king-type, really is a raging egomaniac; Meredith the femme fatale really is a sexpot; Wren the ingenue really is demure and sweet, etc etc. Where this fails most problematically is that the "background player" types are kind of underdeveloped, and that's Oliver and Filippa. Oliver, you'll remember, is the main character and while it's not unusual for a reader-insert-character protagonist to be kind of bland, Oliver never really captured or held interest for me. Filippa is the only other member of the group that doesn't come from privilege and the small peeks we get at who she is make her easily the most potentially interesting character, and it's frustrating that she's given the short shrift. The plot developments, too, weren't handled especially deftly. I'm generally not good at anticipating plot twists, but I called nearly all of the major ones easily. Rio's prose is solid, though, and while I'd definitely be open to reading more from her in the future, I'm not going to be scouring publishing news waiting for her follow up. I'd recommend this to people who loved The Secret History and want to read something similar, but if you haven't read that book yet, it's better than this one.
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DNF @ 10%

I overlooked the Shakespearean focus of this novel in favor of the comparisons to The Secret History. My mistake. Shakespeare has just never, and I’m resigned to believe will never, be my thing. The opening gives the reader a glimpse at the future, of one of the main characters being released for jail for an unknown crime, and it’s a hook that works. But then we’re introduced to seven characters: Richard, Meredith, Filippa, Alexander, Wren, James, and Oliver. Every single one of these characters, regardless of gender, all blended together without any helpful differentiation to keep track of who was who. The theater kid stereotypes were excessive in my opinion and you practically had to be a theater kid to understand and/or appreciate most of it.

“That was ruthless,” I said, sotto voce.

The author holds a Masters in Shakespeare studies so, being as far from a theater kid as one can get, I can only assume she knows what she’s talking about. Constantly quoting Shakespeare in conversation got old, fast, and by 10% I put on my hipster glasses and called it quits.
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I was eager to read this book as soon as I read about it, and it didn't disappoint. The writing is sharp and fluid and the story moves at a good pace with intriguing, multi-faceted characters. I would recommend this for fans of Donna Tartt or Emma Donague!
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This story was pretty interesting, if a little precious with a line from Shakespeare on every page. It was actually really interesting to see how these kids were torn apart from the inside over something that could have honestly been played off as a simple mistake. I did have a few questions about their choices, but they are kids, and I could easily look past my own concerns in order to enjoy the mystery. I would definitely recommend this to any lover of Shakespeare, as well as those who enjoy reading about spoiled college kids, in the vain of Donna Tartt. It was a fun, interesting read.
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In all good mysteries, the why is usually more interesting than the who. Colonel Mustard did it with the candlestick in the library, sure, but why? If We Were Villains grips you by the heart by making the the story more a fascinating character study than a murder mystery.

With If We Were Villains, M.L. Rio tells a terrific story through complex and charismatic characters. The author knows her Shakespeare, and the passions that books and plays inspire, and she weaves from this a alluring tale of love, violence, and obsession.
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Thank you Netgalley and Flatiron Books for the eARC.
After reading many favorable reviews, I was really looking forward to reading this book.  Unfortunately, I did not like it.
The 7 main characters were unappealing spoilt brats who attend an arts college, studying Shakespeare, enacting his plays, hoping to find careers as actors. They form close bonds, alternately squabbling, quoting the Bard constantly and romancing each other.  When one of them ends up murdered, the group shatters and one of them confesses, subsequently spending a 10-year stretch in jail.
Upon his release he reveals the truth to the then officer heading the case, which comprises the rest of the book.
At the end I had a 'what the heck!' moment, as in: no one in their right mind would do that...
I have to admit to not being a Shakespeare fan, so I found the many quotes and scenes boring.  That said, fans of Shakespeare might enjoy this book.
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Wow, did I love this one. I didn't realize it was considered a thriller when I first picked it up because that's not usually my genre, but it felt...different. (It actually reminded me a lot of Vicious by V.E. Schwab just in tone and overall mood and feeling).

One thing I loved most about this book is that I just never knew where it was going. I hadn't read the description because I wanted to go in blind (although the synopsis is pretty vague anyway), but this book had me entranced the whole time. I just quite honestly never knew where the book was going to go next. The thing I thought was going to be the climax happens pretty early on, leaving me wondering what else was going to happen??? Now, I did guess the whodunit pretty early on, but even pretty close to the end, I had no idea how everything was going to wrap up.

I loved the author's writing style. It was flowy and entrancing and sucked me right in. Also, this book is full of Shakespeare, so bonus points. I think theater kids especially will love this one.

This story is told in flashback from our MC, Oliver, about their senior year of school. Oliver and his 6 classmates are trying to finish their fourth year, when their very own tragedy occurs, causing them to fall apart. I thought our 7 MC's were fleshed out quite well. They each had their own personality, at least as seen by Oliver. There are quite a few relational dynamics, and I was glad to see all of them explored.

Again, I loved this book immensely, from the insider view on theater life to the character dynamics to the suspense and intrigue on what is happening. I can't wait to read more from this author.
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The crime's the thing -- and so's the cover-up -- in M.L. Rio's audaciously entertaining If We Were Villains (Flatiron Books, digital galley). Imagine Donna Tartt's The Secret History set at an elite arts conservatory in Illinois, where the acting students are obsessed with all things Shakespeare. By the fall of 1997, the seven fourth-year students -- all bright, young things -- know each other so well they can predict who will play what roles in an upcoming production of Julius Caesar. What they cannot predict is that their onstage parts soon will spill over into real life: lovers will fight one another, friends will betray friends, someone will end up dead.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First-time author and former actor Rio structures her literary thriller like a five-act Shakespearean drama, beginning with a prologue as former student Oliver Marks is released from prison after serving 10 years for murder. Waiting for him is the retired detective who initially worked the case and who wants to hear what really happened after the cast party a decade ago. Oliver then unfolds in flashback a story of love and friendship, obsession and deceit, with passions and secrets worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

For theater nerds and Shakespeare fans, the book is enthralling. An account of the three witches scene from Macbeth staged lakeside on Halloween night offers midnight magic. A production of King Lear features a set of mirrors reflecting the constellations of the night sky. Still, Rio is so well-versed in the plays that the students often speak to each other in pertinent quotes, and there's no stopping for footnotes. Here's Henry V, Pericles, A Winter's Tale, Troilus and Cressida. One moment leading man Richard is spouting  "How many fond fools serve mad jealousy'' from A Comedy of Errors, and in the next, seductive Meredith is running to the lake proclaiming "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank'' from The Merchant of Venice.

It's a credit to Rio's writing style that these bits of poetry and prose enhance the narrative for the most part, that it seems normal for Oliver to think of Hamlet upon the discovery of a classmate's body. These kids live and breathe Shakespeare, and all the world's their stage. "One sin, I know, another doth provoke; Murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke.'' -- from On a Clear Day I Can Read Forever
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If We Were Villains follows seven close-knit students, seniors in a prestigious acting program, as they fall into their very own Shakespearean tragedy. Studying at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory, the students are immersed in the plays of Shakespeare, secluded from reality in a suitably castle-like dormitory, reading antique leather-bound editions and drinking expensive whiskey in front of roaring fires. While not exactly comparable to most post-secondary education experiences, the dramatic world of these students is easy to become immersed in, especially as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.

The story is narrated by Oliver, an outsider among the group because he is merely upper-middle-class, as opposed to the vast wealth of his friends. As the novel opens, Oliver is just being released from prison, as a result of an incident that took place ten years previous at Dellecher. Detective Colborne, the officer that originally investigated the students, is ready to retire, but he is desperate to know who really committed the crime to which Oliver confessed. Oliver is finally ready to tell the truth, but even he does not know the whole story of what transpired on that fateful night. 

The novel is set out in five acts, mirroring the structure of a Shakespearean play. As the students take on the roles they are assigned in plays such as MacBeth and Julius Caesar, they become so involved that their characters begin to cross over into real life – they take on frightening aspects of the heroes, villains and temptresses that Shakespeare imagined. Unsurprisingly, the violence of the plays soon spills over into their lives until a real tragedy occurs, shaking up their small community. Each of the seven is a witness to what happened, but only a few of them know who did it – and there are always more secrets to be exposed.

Although it is being compared strongly to The Secret History, this novel is really quite a basic whodunnit, embellished with excessive Shakespeare quotes – his words are not only sprinkled into everyday conversation, they actually form the majority of conversations between the seven friends. The result is affected and pretentious, but I think it was meant to be that way – like many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Oliver and his friends are too overwhelmed by their own hubris to see what’s happening right in front of them. And of course, the unlikableness of the characters always makes them more interesting.

I struggled with how to rate this novel, because there are certainly problems with it – but ultimately, it was entertaining enough that I felt compelled to finish Oliver’s confession. The thoughtful and intelligent concept of this novel outweighs any problems with its execution, and I will certainly continue to read Rio’s future novels, to see what she comes up with next.

I received this book from Flatiron Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary:
After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It:
Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes:
Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved:
- If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
- The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
- Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
- What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like:
- References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote:
"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."

Good for People Who Like…
Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories
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