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Book Review: "If We Were Villains" would make Shakespeare proud

A Shakespeare-inspired work isn’t complete without three things: a memorable cast, philosophical questions, and of course, murder. M.L. Rio’s 2017 powerhouse thriller “If We Were Villains” has all that and more, which I can only imagine, would make the Bard proud.

After serving ten years in prison for a crime he may or may not have committed, Oliver is released, only to find the detective who put him there waiting for him. Before he retires, the detective wants to know what happened ten years ago.

As one of seven Shakespearean actors at a small arts college, Oliver Marks and his friends have been typecast into their roles on and off the stage. Oliver plays the part of the loyal friend to James’s hero; Meredith the temptress, Richard the tyrant, Alexander the villain, Wren the ingenue, and Filippa plays any different roles that need to be filled. When the casting changes and secondary characters become the stars, their lives spin out of control–jealousy, hatred, and love form a dangerous reaction. After one of their own is found dead in the lake, the remaining actors must perform their best to convince the police, themselves, and the administration that none of them are at fault.

And boy, do these characters put on a performance. Their type casting is written as stereotypical in the beginning–Oliver always siding with James, Meredith flirting with anything that moves, and Richard instigating every argument. Yet, as the story progresses, the layers of each character are peeled back for nuanced and complex performances that could rival Shakespeare’s own characterization. Even when you think you can predict a character’s actions, Rio surprises readers by not playing into the type casting–although the murderer was a bit obvious from the get-go if you look hard enough.

Rio’s writing style combines Shakespearean quotes and literary elements. It makes “If We Were Villains” into an easy-to-read play that could easily be translated to the stage. Many thriller novels have the same cinematic elements, but “If We Were Villains” is set up like script and immerses readers into the theater of their minds. Rio has made the Bard accessible to novices and experts without any high art condescension, even if you've never read Shakespeare or are unfamiliar with the references.

As you would expect with anything Shakespeare-inspired, “If We Were Villains” is a suspenseful and thrilling novel but heartbreaking at its core. Although this isn’t necessarily a who-dunnit or a murder mystery, I wish more clues and skepticism were incorporated into the flashbacks to find the murderer.

Nevertheless, “If We Were Villains” is a theater kid’s dream and nightmare–an eerie concept that could very well be replicated in reality. Steeped in drama, heartbreak, envy, and dark academia, this novel has the makings of a classic mystery novel.

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