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OPINION: BOOK REVIEW: Modern tragedy in If We Were Villains

OPINION: BOOK REVIEW: Modern tragedy in If We Were Villains

By Alexia Aleman
Bridge Staff Podcaster
Published Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough,” M.L. Rio writes in her debut novel If We Were Villains. Although the novel is full of beautiful quotes, this one completely captures the essence and meaning of the story.

The novel follows seven young actors studying Shakespeare at a prestigious university. At the center, Oliver Marks is completing a 10-year prison sentence for the murder of Richard Sterling, his former classmate and friend.

Alexia Aleman portrait
Alexia Aleman

Complex relationships join together the seven friends. Even between friends, feelings of envy and hatred become dangerous rather quickly. Shakespeare becomes the center of their lives as the roles they play onstage become the roles they play off stage: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue and extra.

I have always been a fan of murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. Still, I had never submerged myself in the world, or the aesthetic, of dark academia. Dark academia is a subculture that concerns itself with higher education, the arts and literature or a romanticized version of them.

It focuses on writing, poetry, ancient art, classic literature and classic Greek. If We Were Villains, although it includes murder and a whodunit plot, focuses more on the corruption and morality of individuals. In the case of Rio, she weaves Shakespeare into the story and utilizes his works to justify and blame the corrupt morality of the characters. The characters themselves wash away their guilt and use Shakespeare as a scapegoat for their actions.

At the novel’s end, Marks is asked “Do you blame Shakespeare for any of it?” His response was, “I blame him for all of it.” Marks, despite confessing to everything that occurred all those years ago, still finds his friends and himself blameless. It makes one wonder if they were always terrible people, or if they just lost themselves along the way.

Before this book, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Shakespeare. His plays are classics, obviously, but I was not all that interested in them. So, it was a letdown when I quickly realized the novel had way too many Shakespeare references. I got to page 20 and had to put it down. It wasn’t until I took a Shakespeare class, that I decided to give the novel a second chance—it was mostly because I was now able to understand the references. I can say with the utmost certainty, I’m glad I decided to give it a second chance. I thank Rio for making me a Macbeth, Julius Caesar and King Lear fan.

If you love happy endings, this book is not for you. The characters live and breathe Shakespeare. So, of course, it’s going to be a tragedy. Over the novel’s five acts, the characters grapple with the consequences of their actions. They learn to understand what it means to be villains in their own version of a self-created Shakespeare tragedy.

I love memorable books that leave me uncertain for days. If We Were Villains succeeded in doing that. I obsessed over the ending for days. The moment I realized what was happening in the end, I screamed so loud and thought how cruel of Rio to end it that way. Even now, months after I finished reading it, I still find myself thinking of this book—maybe it’s a sign I should read it again.

If We Were Villains has truly become one of my favorite books—truly, a masterpiece.

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