“If We Were Villains,” the debut novel of M.L. Rio, an actor turned author, is a captivating journey into the world of dark academia.
Published in 2017, this novel masterfully blends elements of murder mystery and dramatic tragedy. Drawing on her acting background, Rio crafts a compelling narrative set in an elite drama school, where a Shakespearean-scale disaster unfolds.
The story revolves around Oliver Marks, a 31-year-old who’s just completing a decade-long prison sentence for the murder of Richard Stirling, his former classmate at the Dellecher Conservatory.
This elite school, dedicated solely to Shakespeare, becomes the stage for a series of events that blur the lines between performance and reality.
Oliver and his circle of six friends – Richard, Meredith, Filipa, Alexander, Wren, and James – are not just drama students but embodiments of Shakespearean archetypes.
Their final year at Dellecher, however, is marred by a dramatic shift in the group’s dynamics. When Richard, typically cast in dominant roles, is assigned a lesser part in Macbeth, his resentment grows, leading to increasingly violent behavior.
This tension peaks during a performance of Julius Caesar, where a planned attack on stage by Alexander, James, and Oliver against Richard takes a dark turn.
The group’s internal conflicts come to a head after a cast party, where Richard, fueled by jealousy and alcohol, confronts Meredith. A subsequent altercation with James ends with Richard’s accidental death, a secret the friends desperately try to conceal.
Detective Colborne, the officer in charge of the investigation, has always doubted Oliver’s guilt. Upon his retirement, he seeks the truth from Oliver, who narrates the events of that fateful year.
As Oliver recounts their descent into a world where Shakespearean drama and real-life tragedies collide, the lines between their roles and their lives blur dangerously.
The novel is structured like a five-act play, with scenes as chapters and frequent Shakespearean quotes, immersing the reader in a world where art imitates life to a fatal degree.
Themes of love, jealousy, ambition, and murder resonate through the narrative, echoing the timeless motifs of Shakespeare’s works.
As the story unfolds, Oliver’s sacrifice becomes apparent – he took the fall for James, driven by unacknowledged love.
The revelation that James might still be alive, suggested in a cryptic note, leaves the reader pondering the true extent of the tragedy that befell this group of friends.
1. The Dangers of Blurring Reality and Performance
The novel vividly demonstrates the hazards of losing oneself in a role, both metaphorically and literally.
The characters, deeply immersed in their Shakespearean studies, begin to embody the traits of the characters they play.
This blurring of lines between their stage personas and real-life identities leads to devastating consequences. The lesson here is about maintaining a healthy balance between one’s professional or artistic passions and personal identity.
It emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and the need to remain grounded in reality, especially when deeply involved in any form of intense, immersive work or art.
2. Human Relationships and Emotions are quite Complicated
The book delves into the intricate web of human emotions and relationships.
The characters experience intense jealousy, unrequited love, ambition, and loyalty, all of which culminate in a tragedy.
The novel teaches the importance of open communication and honesty in relationships. It shows how suppressed emotions and unspoken truths can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts.
This lesson is particularly valuable in understanding the impact of our emotions on our decisions and the importance of confronting and expressing our feelings in a healthy manner.
3. The Consequences of Ethical Compromises and Secrets
Central to the novel is the theme of moral ambiguity and the consequences of ethical compromises.
The characters make a series of decisions, each one leading them further into a web of lies and deceit.
This culminates in a collective decision to let a friend die to protect themselves, which haunts them all. The lesson here is about the long-term impacts of compromising one’s ethics and the weight of carrying secrets.
It underscores the idea that while it might seem easier to hide the truth or take the seemingly less challenging path at the moment, such decisions often have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences that can affect one’s life and the lives of others profoundly.
M.L. Rio’s “If We Were Villains” is a thrilling exploration of the thin line between reality and performance, a tale that resonates long after the final act.
The novel, since its release, has garnered international acclaim, being translated into six languages and celebrated for its suspenseful atmosphere and engaging plot.
So, owing to that very thing, I can conclude that it is definitely worth reading.