If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio // A Modern Shakespearean Tragedy

“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 first came across If We Were Villains when I stumbled upon Chaima’s 5-star review for it on Goodreads. We all know how beautiful Chaima’s reviews are, so naturally I was immediately convinced to read this. I admit that neither dark academia nor adult books are my type, but this book worked for me nonetheless.

In If We Were Villains, Oliver Marks, newly released from prison, recounts his and six other pretentious actors’ experiences in their fourth year of studying and performing Shakespeare. One of the members of their group, Richard, increasingly grows violent, until his untimely death. Supposedly, the death was an accident, but the ghost of Richard haunts the remaining six of the group for months—and even years—later.

Throughout the book, the main characters perform numerous Shakespearean tragedies, and I think that if I knew the plot lines of these plays more, my reading experience would’ve been more immersive. The author also dropped a lot of nods to Shakespeare in this book, all of which flew over my head because the closest I’ve come to studying Shakespeare is studying a little bit of Macbeth for English class last year.

Also, I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story because it was initially a little slow moving. The characters tend to sprinkle bits of lines from Shakespeare plays into everyday conversations, and I had zero clue what they were saying.

But what this book did succeed in was differentiating seven people from each other pretty early on.

  • Oliver– The extra, who is also our main protagonist. At times it felt like his first person narration was that of a third person narrator, which marvelously showed how overshadowed he is by the others in the group.
  • James– The hero, and one of the most talented actors in the group. His relationship with Oliver is…. complex, but I think that its beauty lies in its complexity. Even though they’re both questionable, I just want them to be happy okay
  • Richard– The tyrant and the most talented actor of the seven, who starts to get alarmingly volatile and arrogant. His death impacts everyone in the group in severe ways.
  • Meredith– The temptress, who literally everyone is physically attracted to.
  • Wren– The ingenue (innocent and girl next door-like), who takes the death of Richard extremely hard since they were cousins.
  • Alexander– The villain. Frequently stoned and also gay.
  • Filippa– An extra, similar to Oliver, but one of the coolest ones in the bunch. She’s the friend you go to if you want to hide a dead body, and I’m so sad that she’s not appreciated as an actor because my girl deserves better.

All of the main characters are perfectly fleshed out, which is no easy feat considering that there are seven of them. I like that the roles they’re usually cast as play a huge part in their personalities and help us distinguish them from one another. All of them are horrible in their own ways, and watching their descent into madness after Richard’s death is so fun—a modern Shakespearean tragedy indeed.

At first, everyone is keen to play off his death as an accident. They find him on the brink of death, but after some negotiating amongst themselves, they decide that it’s best to let Richard die as to end his reign of terror.

We cracked up. But we didn’t really shatter until we came back together again.

The six start to unravel because of their shared guilt and PTSD after this incident. And once they find out more about Richard’s murder, they finally come undone. The ending is, in the opinion of someone who is not well-versed in tragedies or Shakespeare at all, so fitting.

This book gets pretty dark, and to be honest, I don’t think all of the themes were handled respectfully. Maybe this is normal in adult novels because they’re naturally grittier? Anyways, I’d recommend this book nonetheless. It was so well-written and clearly well-researched. I think that Shakespeare and classic nerds will get a lot out of this book, as in, a lot.


4 stars

More About the Book

Publication date: April 11th 2017 

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Age group & genre: Adult, mystery, dark academia

Rep: main m/m romance, gay side character, Jewish side character


Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.

As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

Content warningsdeath, murder, physical abuse, slut shaming, homophobic comments, unchallenged use of a slur for Romani people, drug overdose, PTSD depiction, depression depiction, suicide, self-harm, and mention of an eating disorder (and an insensitive comment about it)

*I am a book depository affiliate, and will receive a small commission with no additional cost to you if you buy through my link. As I am a teen book blogger based internationally, the extra money would be a great help.

Have you read If We Were Villains? Do you want to?


28 thoughts on “If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio // A Modern Shakespearean Tragedy

  1. Like you I’m not really all that familiar with Shakespeare; I’ve heard of most of his works and had to study a few of them for school but I’m honestly not a fan of it and can’t really picture myself picking up any of his works by choice. So the fact that the characters in this tend to quote his work a lot is a little off-putting for me. I feel like maybe the rest of the story is one that I could enjoy though with the mix of characters and descent into madness that you’ve mentioned. I’ve also seen several other reviews saying how good this book is so I think I’ll probably take a chance on it (I think I’ve already added it to my TBR actually) sometime; just not until I’ve caught up a little bit more on some of the books I’m desperate to read. Fantastic review (:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same! The English he uses is just a big no no to decipher. But even though they do that, you can still understand what they’re saying (at least for me). I think you can skip over those parts and you’ll still understand what’s going on!

      Yes!! The story is so good! It’s incredibly well written, especially for a debut! I hope you can read all the books you want to read them get to this. Thank you 💖

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes that’s exactly how I feel, I just find his writing confusing on the whole. That’s good to know (: and it’s definitely a relief to know that you feel the same about his writing but enjoyed this book regardless.

        Thank you (:

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been going back and forth with whether or not I wanted to read this and this review was so helpful! Knowing that you don’t have a lot of knowledge about Shakespeare’s works but were still able to enjoy this says a lot for the story and writing! I’m actually currently in a Shakespeare class and having to read a lot of his stuff so I’m getting a little more familiar with his work, but I’m still largely in the dark when it comes to a lot of it! I wasn’t sure if I could enjoy this without really knowing more and now I know that I still can! I also really love adult novels for their grittiness, so I think I might really enjoy this. Thanks for the great review, Caitlin!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahh, thank you so much!! I first tried editing book covers a few weeks ago, and it did not go well at all. I think it was because the first one I tried to edit was Sorcery of Thorns, and it was so hard to get the text off her hair and it make it look natural. Luckily, I found the full cover without texts in the author’s tumblr!!

        I then tried again with If We Were Villains, and the result was slightly better. This one is actually my second attempt to edit this cover, because I was unhappy with the first one, and I’m pretty proud of myself for editing the text out myself 😂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that if you know a lot about Shakespeare, you will enjoy this book SO much more, because it’s truly a love letter to theater and Shakespeare. But at the same time, this book is just so well written and well crafted, so I was able to enjoy it nonetheless! Good luck in your Shakespeare class! This book actually features discussions about Shakespeare’s plays, so maybe you’ll get something from it! I think that you’ll enjoy this too, and I’m so happy that my review helped convince you :)) thank you ❤️❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I definitely think I’m going to pick this one up now! Your reviews are always so convincing!♥♥ Honestly, if I don’t recognize all of the Shakespeare references, I’m gonna be so annoyed with myself considering all of his plays I’ve bee reading lately 😅 You’re welcome!!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been reading more and more adult books, and this one sounds right up my alley. I love that you mentioned that it gets quite gritty, and that you felt all seven main characters were well-crafted. Also, I really love Shakespeare, and I’ve read a few of his plays, so that makes me even more excited. I don’t even know why I was ignoring this book for the longest time – it’s like I saw it around, but never really looked into it. Anyway, fantastic review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. definitely read it if you want to read more adult! I don’t read much, but this definitely didn’t deter me from the age group!

      If you love Shakespeare, I think you’ll enjoy this book WAY more. This book is truly a love letter to his works. Aww thank you so much 💖

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dude, you’re header is amazing!! for someone who just started playing around with using titles in headers, you’re doing so GOOD!

    lmao “She’s the friend you go to if you want to hide a dead body”. 😏😏😏 i see what you did there.

    I love this review! you captured the book perfectly. and chaima’s review is honestly why I read the book too😂 she is such a good writer and reviewer and i want to comment on each and every one of her posts but i get way too shy and totally chicken out!! I frustrate myself sometimes. 😞

    you’re right, this book is gritty and dark, and so well-researched too! I feel like it’d make a good TV series, honestly, and I’d totally watch it 🙂

    also i see you’re reading The Fever King. 👀 good luck my friend, you’re not ready

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh, THANK YOU. It’s actually so fun and therapeutic to edit book titles off covers! I even listen to audiobooks while doing it!

      Hehe, *wink wink*

      I know!!! Chaima’s reviews are so so beautiful. They’re the right balance between funny and poetic, and when she loves a book, you can really tell that she does. I don’t think she really replies to comments anymore, which is a shame, but back when she did, her replies were the BEST—I loved reading them so much. I relate to being intimidated by her though! She’s so cool! I’ve actually left really embarrassing comments on her posts before hehe :”)

      AH, I was thinking movie! But still, this book would make the perfect adaptation!! I can just imagine it and it would be amazing

      Sadly, I can’t really read it right now because SCHOOL UGH but I’m really enjoying it so far! I wonder what’s in store for me 👀


  5. This sounds so such an interesting and complex book that I can’t help but be intrigued by the premise even though I don’t know much about Shakespeare and classics but all the characters sound complex and intriguing.
    It certainly sounds dark so I think I would have to be in the mood for something a bit darker to pick this up but I love that they are all actors and that it is based around a murder (that sentence sounds wrong but it is fictional)!
    I am definitely interesting in the ending now as well ,ahha!!
    Great review!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, please read this book! I’m also not that familiar with Shakespeare, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless! Even if you take away the Shakespeare aspect, you’ll find a well written and well crafted story.
      Haha, no it doesn’t! A premise like that is very intriguing, but definitely pick it up when you’re in the right headspace.
      Ohhh, the end garnered a lot of emotions from readers 👀
      Thank you !!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a feeling that he would be too haha. Even though I think all of these characters would be your type? They are all villainous in some way.

      Def pick this up even if you’re not that familiar with Shakespeare because I’m also not, but I really enjoyed this still!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ahh, I’m kinda shocked. I feel like this book is famous to a degree?

    Ooo, if Shakespeare intrigues you, you HAVE to read this. This book is a complete love letter to him. But even without the Shakespeare bits, the story is so well written and well worth the read.


  7. Caitlin my dear- I just realized I missed a bunch of your posts- I’m so sorry!

    Anyway- love this review! I think I might need to give this try. I think Shakespearean inspired stuff is awesome. Most of the time. Lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s ok! I missed a bunch of yours too :(( I’m sorry!

      Thank you! Please do! Even if you don’t enjoy Shakespeare, I think you’re still gonna love the writing and characters. Though just being interested in Shakespeare would probably help you enjoy this book a lot already!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read one last year I loved, if you don’t mind Adult historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell wrote One based on Williams Shakespeare’s brother, Richard Shakespeare. It happens while William is writing/producing Midsummer Night’s Dream. I loved it, but then I Love Cornwell, so take it how you will!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know it’s really not your typical type of book- so I’m not pressuring you or anything, but if you ever wanted to check it out, it’s called Fools and Mortals.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Also- don’t worry about missing my posts- you’re super busy I know! I just assumed I wasn’t missing yours because you were so busy you weren’t posting as frequently.

        Liked by 1 person

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