reading recaps: if we were villains

If We Were Villains Review: A Decent Dark Academia Read

📖 GenreFiction, Thriller, Mystery, Contemporary, Dark Academia
📃 Number of Pages354 pages
🪴 Average Goodreads Rating4.18 ⭐
🌻 My Rating4.5 ⭐

What is If We Were Villains About?

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio is a dark academia novel in which Oliver Marks, recently released from prison, tells a detective how he ended up there. In his memories, we follow him and his theatre group in their final year of university. They are completely immersed in Shakespeare and have firmly established roles within their group and in plays. But once those roles get disrupted, bad things start happening. 

Even though this book was first released in 2017, I only read it in 2023 for the first time. Back when it came out, I was not reading much, and once I started again, dark academia didn’t interest me. However, around the time Book Depository was closing, I found a deal on an illustrated special edition of If We Were Villains. You can imagine what happened. 

And I ended up loving it (thankfully, considering how my other cover-based purchases went). It’s not flawless, by any means, but it is a relatively satisfying and well-told story.

For someone who loved words as much as I did, it was amazing how often they failed me.

My Thoughts: Likes, Dislikes and More

if we were villains review

The Prose

The prose in this book is beautiful while remaining unpretentious at the same time. I often have an issue with books in the dark academia genre trying really hard to sound intelligent and poetic, which usually results in it sounding pretentious for the sake of it. M. L. Rio’s writing is simple, yet lyrical and quite cinematic as well. 

At the same time, I didn’t enjoy how much Shakespeare she used. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare, but there were entire scenes where the characters act out the plays word-for-word, dialogues that were completely lines from Shakespeare’s works, and more. And I do get why it was done, but I believe the same point could have been made (to the same effect) with less Shakespeare. 

It’s truly a book for Shakespeare lovers, but at the same time, you can just as easily get it even if you’re not into his works. 

How tremendous the agony of unmade decisions.

The Plot

The plot itself was predictable — I was able to tell what happened and pretty much how since the beginning. 

But I’d argue that the twists and the mystery of it were not the point of If We Were Villains. The author really wanted to dig into the characters and how they’d respond to different situations, how much of them is influenced by their roles, and whether they are who people think they are. 

I have to compare it to The Secret History here, loathe as I am to do it — but in The Secret History you know who did it from the very first sentence, and you can pretty much guess why. Yet it’s still a very gripping novel because it explores the characters and how they’re influenced by their studies and philosophy, as well as how they’ll respond. 

I’d say that the plot was interesting still, even if you guess all of the main points. It kept me reading and I wasn’t bored at any point. 

‘What is more important, that Caesar is assassinated or that he is assassinated by his intimate friends? … That,’ Frederick said, ‘is where the tragedy is.

The Characters

if we were villains review

For the most part, I quite enjoyed the characters in If We Were Villains, especially Oliver Marks, who is the narrator and you get to know him and his friends from his perspective. He’s the most fleshed-out character as well. 

The others are, more or less, a bit shallow. 

I get what the author wanted to do with giving them each a designated role and seeing how that plays out. Is Richard a brute with dictator-like qualities because that’s the character he always plays or does he get those roles because that’s who he is? Is Meredith a seductress or is it just her role? 

But at the same time, I believe the characters came out a little flat. We don’t really get to know any of them better, especially characters like Filippa, Wren, or Alexander, who were not as central to the story. The main players in this book, you could say, are Richard, Meredith, Oliver, and James. Most of the story is propelled by them. 

However, I don’t think we get to know them as well as we could either. Richard is a truly menacing presence from the very beginning, so you do dislike him, but it’s never quite explained why he’d start behaving the way he did. Previously to losing his preferred role, he was a normal, if, again, menacing, guy, and seemed friendly with everyone. So did he only become a bad guy because he lost the role? That can’t be it. 

Imagine having all your own thoughts and feelings tangled up with all the thoughts and feelings of a whole other person. It can be hard, sometimes, to sort out which is which.

Then there’s James, who is arguably the most important character after Oliver, but I feel like we didn’t get to know him at all. The same goes for Meredith, whose motivations and goals are unclear. 

It’s really hard to get the ensemble cast right. There are so many people and relationships to keep track of, that elements of it can get lost. Considering this was a debut, I’d say that the author did a pretty good job, but there’s still room for improvement. 

Similarly to the characters, the relationships in this novel had potential but were not fleshed out well. There are seven people in this group, which means there’s tons of work to be done working out how each of them relates to one another. Unfortunately, something was missing. 

I did like the friendship and romantic relationship between James and Oliver, though. I’d have preferred if Oliver didn’t get together with Meredith because he was in love with James the entire time. But for the period where it was set (late 1990s) and with the situation being what it was, it’s forgivable. 

‘Were you in love with him?’
‘Yes,’ I say, simply. James and I put each other through the kind of reckless passions Gwendolyn once talked about, joy and anger and desire and despair. After all that, was it really so strange? I am no longer baffled or amazed or embarrassed by it. ‘Yes, I was.’ It’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is, I’m in love with him still.

The Ending

if we were villains review

I have a thing for ambiguous endings. They’re fun and leave a lot of room for interpretation — in a way, you can make the story your own by making up your own ending. 

In this case, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. This is major spoiler territory, so please look away if you haven’t read it yet. 

Okay, so James murdered Richard and let Oliver take the blame. Sure, he’s all torn up about it and wants to confess, but he never really does. Then he abandons Oliver entirely and stops visiting. If he truly died, then it would have been understandable — the guilt was killing him. But what does it mean that he’s possibly alive? Did he manipulate Oliver through it all? Or was it just that he couldn’t handle life as himself anymore? 

As tragically romantic as it would be that James is alive and waiting for Oliver, the implications of it leave me questioning whether that relationship should happen at all. 

“Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?”
The question is so unlikely, so nonsensical coming from such a sensible man, that I can’t suppress a smile. “I blame him for all of it.”

The Vibes

One of the best parts of If We Were Villains is its setting and the vibes that it creates. It’s a perfect autumn read, cozy yet mysterious and creepy. Dellecher is beautiful, set in an idyllic countryside, with lakes and forests abound. The buildings are old, and full of history.

Combine it with the prose and the insidious nature of the plot, and you get a truly unique and wonderful reading experience. 

Comparisons to The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I love reading negative reviews of the books I loved — sometimes because I want a fresh perspective, sometimes just to be contrary. And once I started reading the negative reviews for If We Were Villains, I found a common thread. 

A lot of people seem to believe that this is a cheap knock-off of The Secret History. And at first, I disagreed. 

But after thinking about it some more, I have to say that I do see their point. To a degree. 

Yes, it’s set at a prestigious university and yes, it has a murder and a group of students too involved with their studies. I do believe that the author attempted to emulate the complexity of characters from The Secret History and their interpersonal relationships. 

However, I don’t think that these two books were written with the same goals. Donna Tartt wanted to criticize the elitist academic society. M. L. Rio focused more on exploring how the roles the characters played in Shakespeare bled into their real life, and how the plays themselves distorted their morality and view of life. Which makes sense, considering that Rio has a master’s degree in Shakespeare and was an actress herself. 

While some elements overlap, I do believe this is natural for books in the same genre. You wouldn’t say that one romance book is a knockoff of another only because they both have a fake dating element. 

If We Were Villains TV Show Adaptation

A TV adaptation of If We Were Villains is underway — Blink49 studios and the producer of Sex Education are working on a TV show based on this novel. It was first announced in 2022, and Kristina Lauren Anderson has recently been attached to the project as a writer set to work on the script. 

Final Thoughts

Despite all of my issues with this book, I really did love it. It was an enjoyable, fun read that transported me into a different setting and kept me reading. I wish the characters were a bit more developed, and that the book focused more on their relationships, but overall, it was a great experience. 

I’m looking forward to more books from this author because I do like her prose, as well as the themes/aesthetics she explores. Fortunately, she has a new book coming out, and you can learn all about it here. 

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