Sent to me by Titan Books in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 13/06/17
Publisher: Titan Books
Format: Paperback, 432pp
Summed up in a word: Tragedy
I wasn’t so sure about If We Were Villains… Titan Books asked me if I would review it on the blog tour and I hesitantly agreed. I was concerned as I have no experience with the theatre or Shakespeare, two elements this novel leans on heavily, and I didn’t think I would be able to appreciate it the fullest extent. I was quickly drawn in by a intriguing plot centred around an interesting cast of actors. If We Were Villains is a novel that addresses both tragedy and true love; the thin line between an actor’s role and real life. I recommend this book to all, it is dramatic, engaging and captivating. Full review below. Thank you to Philippa for sending me such an epic novel. Please check out the other stops on the blog tour to find out more about If We Were Villains. See poster below.
Oliver Marks has just served ten years for the murder of one of his closest friends – a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened ten years ago.
As a young actor studying Shakespeare at an elite arts conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same roles onstage and off – villain, hero, tyrant, temptress – though Oliver felt doomed to always be a secondary character in someone else’s story. But when the teachers change up the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into life.
When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless
If We Were Villains is a complex, bold and engrossing story about how, in the right circumstances, we’re all capable of villainous acts. I was weary at first about reading this novel due to the heavy theatre and Shakespearean influences. I have a limited knowledge of both, but I found myself admiring M. L. Rio’s ambitious story populated by intriguing characters and brilliant nuances that MLR brings into play. I became very fond of Rio’s artistic and thrilling writing style, as well as the Shakespearean dialogue, and kept on reading all the way to the emotional and cathartic ending. If We Were Villains will certainly appeal to those who are a fan of the dramatic arts and/or those who enjoy a good murder mystery.
The novel acts as a confession, a clarification of a series of events, that landed Oliver Marks in prison ten years ago for the murder of a fellow classmate. The man who arrested him a decade ago, Detective Colbourne, always felt that the arrest was wrongful but was never able to prove it. Colbourne is retiring from the force and Oliver Marks is about to be released from prison. Colbourne sees this an opportunity to find out what really happened all those years ago. Oliver has served his time and is ready to open up about the experience, what his group went through and what really happened to Richard.
The present day conversations with Colbourne are used as a prologue to begin each act of the story. Most of the novel is set in during the events leading up to the death of Richard. The story mainly focuses on the deterioration of the family like bond that each character shares with one another after Richard’s passing. The group of students are in their fourth and final year of their theatre/performing arts education. The tensions and expectations are stretching everyone to the limits. Each Shakespearean play that they master brings them one step closer to the edge. Richard, the resident villain, becomes jealous of the other males in the group. He starts harming his fellow students, vicious attacks that leave deep wounds (both physical and emotional) and the group begin to fight back. When Richard is found, near-death, floating in the water on campus, the group make a decision that shifts the roles that each of them play forever.
I was instantly captivated by Rio’s writing style. It reads like a combination of a script and a novel. Oliver is narrating his own involvement in the events surrounding the death; it is both theatrical and dramatic. MLR is a talented writer who uses the art and irony of life to tackle huge themes like villainy and true love. The writing is fluid and surprisingly easy-going at times. The characters are a collection of archetypes and stereotypes that shift and switch places as the narrative unfolds. The Shakespearean dialogue was expertly used and I found myself enjoying the characters manipulation of the language.
The characters are the heart of this book and MLR did well to manage so many bold characters in a story of this calibre. Oliver is the main voice, he is an average actor but he is also the glue that keeps the group together, and the other actors rely on him. Oliver loves the others more than his own family. MLR captures a unity that anyone would be jealous of. This strong bond is explored over the first couple of acts of the story but after Richard’s death, it all begins to crumble to dust. MLR got a good balance of complexity between the group; each of the 7 individuals brought a different feel to the narrative. Each of their strengths and weaknesses are on display, there are no secrets between them, until now.
If We Were Villains is essentially a dramatic murder mystery. But it is so much more than that. MLR sets out to debate what constitutes a true tragedy. Can anyone be a hero? Can everyone be a villain? What makes a successful actor? I found this novel to be a refreshing perspective into the passion and emotion that goes into acting. I recommend If We Were Villains to readers who enjoy an immersive and dramatic story that can be violent at time but is mainly focused on the human condition.
Overall I have given If We Were Villains a full 5/5 stars as it took me by surprise, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. My expectations were somewhat uncertain when I picked this up to read and I ended up being blown away by it. This is a great story, influenced by one of the greatest story-tellers of all time. I am excited to read more of M. L. Rio’s work because her approach to writing is visceral, exciting and very moreish.
About M. L. Rio
M. L. Rio was born in Miami and raised in North Carolina by parents from California, and has never been able to satisfactorily answer the question, “Where are you from?” She spent most of her childhood in Middle Earth or Neverland or Wonderland, attended Hogwarts for a number of years, and eventually graduated from the real-life University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in English and dramatic art and a minor in creative writing. Storytelling has always been her specialty. (Photo by Eli Zwiebach-Cohen).
Her writing career began when she participated in Reading Rainbow’s Young Writers and Illustrators Contest in the first grade and wrote her first real story–about a girl who was lucky enough to have a pet dragon and somehow clever enough to hide it from her parents and all of the governmental authorities which might, conceivably, have been interested in such a biological marvel. She suppressed the creative itch for another four years, and then picked up a pen to write her first novel at the much more judicious age of twelve. She finished it at fourteen, mercifully realized it was garbage, and immediately started writing something else. (One decade and half a dozen ‘Drawer Novels’ later, she’s thrilled to say that she is represented by Arielle Datz of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, Inc. and is looking forward to the publication of her de facto first novel by Flatiron Books.)
At about the same time she started to explore Life as Author, she also started to explore Life as Actor. She made her stage debut in the title role of Rumplestiltskin. (At the time she was convinced that she was the best actor in the company; in reality she was simply the smallest and therefore likely the most convincing as a dwarf.) Not long after she discovered the sublime delights of Shakespeare, and soon she was suffering from a case of full-blown Bardolatry. She made her first Shakespearean stage appearance at age fourteen, and since then has played a wide variety of his characters, from the infamous hunchback Richard III to the fairy queen Titania. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe and is currently somewhere in the United States, enjoying the freedom that comes with having no permanent address.
Bio found at M. L. Rio’s website: https://mlrio.com/about/