Sunday, September 19, 2021

Review: IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M. L. Rio


Rating: 4/5 stars

I'm always meaning to read more mystery titles, so what better time than during spooky season? If We Were Villains was chosen as the monthly pick for the book club with my friends. It's not something I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I read it nonetheless. 

This book follows a group of seven thespian friends in their final year at a prestigious art school. By the time of graduation, one of them will end up in prison for ten years, and it is through his POV that this story is told. We don't know what happens to cause this outcome, or even what the crime is, at the beginning of the story, which creates an air of unease and tension throughout the entire novel. 

This story is heavily centered around Shakespearean plays. The only plays that are performed at Dellecher Classical Conservatory are those written by Shakespeare. The friends quote random Shakespeare lines to each other like people in my generation quote lines from Disney movies, or like I quote lines from Spongebob--as if it's a second language. The novel itself is set up like a play, too, having acts and scenes rather than parts and chapters. There are also times during dialogue where the format looks like that found in plays. I thought these visual effects were a nice touch to the overall ambiance of the story. 

I am not a thespian myself, and I have only ever read two Shakespeare plays, so a lot of the references went over my head, but that didn't detract from my attachment to the characters or my enjoyment of the story. I am proof that you can not be involved in theatre but still enjoy a story taking place in one. Thespians, however, would likely connect to the story on a much more personal level than common folk would and subsequently enjoy the story more as well. (I know someone who majored in Shakespearean literature and I'm already planning on gifting her this book because I think it's the absolute perfect gift.) 

M. L. Rio did a great job formulating her characters. With seven main characters, I was worried that I would get them mixed up, but right from the beginning, she separates them out and tells us the personality of each, and that really helped me distinguish them as I read. Oliver was a great protagonist and I enjoyed reading the story from his perspective, EXCEPT . . . 

. . . I wasn't super pleased with some of his decisions at the end. I won't get into spoilers, but I found the ending to be a bit disappointing, an anticlimactic conclusion to an otherwise great story. I did not understand why Oliver made the decision he made, you know, THE decision. He tells another, "You know why," and I'm just sitting here thinking, but I don't know why, so please lay it out for me, the reader! I guess I just expected more from the story than there was, and I expected there to be some final twist or something, but no. About thirty pages from the end, everything is laid bare, and that's how it is. The very, very end was left ambiguous, but it's also kind of obvious to me what happens next. I don't love ambiguous endings, but this one wasn't as infuriating as some I've read. 

I am surprised with how much I found myself enjoying this story. Despite the lackluster ending, I would still recommend this book, and it is one that I do see myself returning to in the future. The writing, the characters, and the setting are all excellently written. I do hope M. L. Rio writes more books in the future as I would love to read more works by her. 

"You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough."

I've realized that I love the dark academia setting, and I want to read more books like If We Were Villains now. There's just something comforting about immersing yourself in a book set in a university where you have your special hangout spots and your private dorm rooms and characters with the constant desire to learn permeating the pages. I loved being in university and I love learning, and I often wish I could go back because that setting and time in my life were unlike any other. So I know for sure I'll be seeking out more dark academia books in the future to sate this newly realized hole in my life. I've seen this book compared to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which I already own and have been excited to read for years, but I might have to move that up on my TBR. 

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