Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.
On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.
Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.
Kids, when you come across this book, you’ll hear a voice saying, “Oh, this sounds interesting! Do it.” That’s the devil talking.
I hate this book so much I can’t bear it. I tore through it, but I feel like it tore through me. That ending grabbed an invisible dagger and twisted it between my ribs. I didn’t want to talk for like…three years. I was exhausted. My heart felt like it was rammed by a semi-truck.
Fuck you, book. You’re a bound bundle of dead tree. How dare you.
So, what’s this book about?
If We Were Villains spans multiple years and characters, but it zooms in on a tightly knit group of seven lyric-mad Shakespearean thespians who seemed to prefer each other’s company to anyone else’s, thereby offending the rest of the world. But at some point, something dark had sown hatred in them and wedged its way between them, and that friendship, once beautiful, later held something worth fearing. At some point, they’d become less friends and more things for each other to hit.
Then, almost inevitably, a murder.
Now, ten years later, detective Colborne feels every choice he’d made, every action he’d taken that fatal night, as a weight he carried with him. There were so many versions of the story everyone had made up—neat distillations of what had happened.
Only one person can say which one was true.
The secrets Oliver Marks had kept had sharp edges. Now, no longer prison-bound, with the realization that there was no darkness Colborne could send him to rival what he’d endured already, Oliver is ready to put the last spectre of the past where it belongs, his brain going there, dredging up those years again, churning them to the surface to be rewound and replayed, remembering…
The truth surging back with a vengeance.
“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,” I say.
I am still so deeply struck by the elegance of a story that appealed to my dark academia loving heart on such a profound spiritual level. Shakespearian aesthetics, higher learning, homoeroticism, a secret society that exists vaguely where everyone communicates with pretentious quotes, characters doing morally grey things at odd hours, a devastating murder, and M.L. Rio has set the scene for an exhilarating, unsettling and invigoratingly taut thriller. It was almost inevitable for me to be hopelessly flummoxed well before the halfway point.
The intricate plot turnings, the meticulous character work and the staggering revelations of the narration made this book a real page-turner. The kind of book you initially think you can read in quick bursts and clashes but which ends up sucking you in for hours at a time. I constantly fell into the lie that I’d read just one more page, and as a result, I missed class. I even missed lunch. And when I finally finished it, I was so obsessed I literally almost flipped back to the beginning to start again!
I am still reeling with shocks. This book was shock upon shock and I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling all the players were stepping onto the stage, but no one had ever bothered to give me a script. Everything I’d wondered about the characters took on a much darker cast than I could ever have imagined. I was still grasping at the small things I hoped might tell a different story when the ending happened.And oh my god. There was a moment where I stopped everything, and my heart flew to my throat in disbelief at what Rio had just done. There was just no way to make my mind accept the possibility of it, because as terrible as imagining what happened might be, it has to be better than living in this current reality of not-knowing.
Seriously. Who, with all due respect, the fuck allowed that ending?
“But that is how a tragedy like ours or King Lear breaks your heart—by making you believe that the ending might still be happy, until the very last minute.”
It’s also hard not to fall as instantly in love with each of these characters, with the encompassing attraction of a group of friends who have made ruins of each other, with the intoxicating chemistry between two lovers who held each other in plain sight of the world, though their bodies remained forever separate. It’s impossible not to feel caught up in the pull of everything—the thorny tangle of guilt, frustration, and longing, the rivalry, the blurred lines between love and hate, the fractured loyalties and determined single-minded violent obsessions that can never end well for most, but make a spellbinding story for the ones who survive to tell.
I mean, sure, if you frame this book in the context of real life, it’s like, “wow, if I knew someone this pretentious in person, I wouldn’t hesitate to smack them upside the head.” But this is fiction and the way I feel about these characters is Steve Harrington going from a popular teenage boy to an extremely stressed-out single soccer mom with four kids in the span of a few days. They’re literally all different shades of horrible and undoubtedly morally compromised but I’m still willing to lay down my kidneys for all of them. (Except Richard. He really did live up to the abbreviation of his name.)
In conclusion, if reading If We Were Villains doesn’t make you want to get with a very tight-knit group of morally questionable Shakespeare devotees with an unhealthy obsession with aesthetics, and together you try to cover up a murder one of you committed, then who even are you?
Actors are by nature volatile—alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.
I know everyone who’s read this book is having a hard time right now and I’m here to say: what the FUCK.
I hate open endings. I couldn’t believe that was it. I don’t have enough imagination to expand on any material. Please tell me what the hell actually happens. I seriously was about to combust because I love Oliver and James SO MUCH and they deserved so much more time together, more than a fleeting kiss shared on a shakespeare scene before one of them is whisked away to a ten-years prison sentence because he took the fall for the man he loves (the only romantic gesture).
Oliver didn’t even get to realize that he was actually in love with James while they were together. It had to happen while they were apart. Also, imagine thinking for six fucking years that the love of your life has given up on you and moved on because they no longer visit you, when in reality they’ve… FAKED their death.
Speaking of which, if anyone tries to pry away from me the fact that James is somewhere waiting for Oliver to find him, it could only be my cold, dead hands, and you’d catch these hands from the grave. I REFUSE to believe otherwise.
Anyway, If We Were Villains takes a Shakespearean tragedy to a whole new level. Eat your heart out, Shakespeare.
ALSO, please read this fanfic because it’s the ending we all deserved. It might not be canon but it’s canon in MY HEART: what is woven into the lives of others by helloearthlings.