Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

(Last Updated On: December 22, 2019)

Expectation is the root of all heartache – William Shakespeare

Whoever recommended this book to me… I just want to talk.

About the Book

Publisher: Flatiron Press  |  Release Date: April 11, 2017  |  Pages: 368
Genre: NA, Mystery  |  Format: Hardcover  |  Source: Purchased

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.

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My Review

As a former Thespian and lifelong lover of Shakespeare, If We Were Villains is a book I should have loved. So many friends spoke so highly of it that I went in with tough-to-meet expectations, and unfortunately, they were not met. I think this is a book people will either love or hate; I should have DNF’d it early on to save myself the frustration but I was curious about the mystery (but on that front was left largely wanting.)

The book largely focuses on the daily lives of the seven fourth-year acting students at their elite performing arts university. All of the characters are pretty much fit a caricature, and I didn’t really connect with anyone other than our main character Oliver. Rio does a good job of nailing the camaraderie developed within a theatre company and the clashes of personality. These students breathe Shakespeare, quoting random lines from his Works in everyday conversation with one another, which I found endearing. But despite my love of the Bard, I really did not enjoy reading about their four performances as they are acted out. If I wanted to read scenes from Macbeth, I would pull out my Complete Works.

I was looking for a murder mystery full of unreliable characters and betrayal. While those expectations were bare minimum met, I found the mystery to almost be the subplot to Oliver’s journey of self-discovery, which would have been beautiful but I found it tainted by a lot of horrible people.

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”

I found myself pretty uncomfortable reading the book because of the bullying and slut-shaming, as well as rather ubiquitous homophobia. The group is incredibly accepting of Alexander’s sexuality (gay); however, everyone is really nasty toward Oliver for a friendship that they think might be more. Everyone is selfish and cruel, which may be an accurate depiction of reality but isn’t really something I want to read. I honestly don’t even want to mention the pansexual subplot in the book because the harmful bullying and homophobia endured are unchallenged. I wish I felt comfortable saying more, but alas.

“You can’t quantify humanity. You can’t measure a – not the way you mean to. People are passionate and flawed and fallible. They make mistakes.”

In regards to the mystery itself, I felt that it was fairly straightforward and I was a little disappointed. In the opening chapter of the book (which, by the way, HOOKED ME so good), Oliver says that he will do his best to tell what really happened but even he isn’t sure. But what followed was a fairly straightforward account of events? Like I understand that each person has a piece of what happened and you aren’t really sure who was telling the truth, but for some reason, the flashback sections of the book didn’t capture that feeling for me.

The pacing was incredibly uneven for me as well. I found myself most invested in the present-day part of the narrative, where Oliver is revisiting the past and explaining what ~really happened~ all those years ago. But the actual recounting of events? Mired down by minutiae and full-on PAGES describing scenes from a play being acted out. Pages. I am not joking. Literally chunks from Shakespeare’s plays are part of Rio’s text. Rio uses this to show the deteriorating relationships between characters as it bleeds into their work, but honestly, this could have been done in a different way. By the third time, it had lost its effect and I was incredibly bored.

It’s obvious that this book is M.L. Rio’s love letter to theatre and the Bard. I think this is a book you will either love or hate, and I am sad to say that this book wasn’t for me. The prose is beautiful and poetic, but the overall narrative structure just didn’t work for me. If you love Shakespeare, this book may be something you enjoy, but I wouldn’t really recommend this to those who aren’t pretty familiar with his work.

Content warnings: bullying, drinking, eating disorder (and shitty comments about it), recreational drug use, homophobia, murder, slut-shaming, substance abuse, suicide

spacer_wLet’s go on another adventure together!


  1. Evelyn

    December 20, 2019 at 10:19 AM

    Sad to hear this one wasn;t for you.. Personally I erally enjoyed it, but as you said this is one you either love or hate. Great review!
    I hope you enjoy your next read more!


    1. Kal

      December 22, 2019 at 12:03 PM

      Me too, but I am really happy to hear you enjoyed it!!!

  2. jessy

    December 20, 2019 at 11:24 AM

    Everyone loves this book so much and my expectations were really high, but now I think I need to calm down a bit lol

    1. Kal

      December 22, 2019 at 12:05 PM

      Yea, I think that was definitely part of my downfall. I also just ASSUMED it would be for me because I am so in love with the Bard, haha. I hope you enjoy the book more than I did when you do pick it up, and thanks for reading my review!

  3. Catarina @ Pages & Plots

    December 21, 2019 at 10:39 AM

    This book has been sitting on my shelves for ages now, and I had 0 expectations. Now I may need to reevaluate that because some of your criticism is stuff I don’t enjoy in books.

    1. Kal

      December 22, 2019 at 12:07 PM

      Oh no! If it weren’t for the way the pansexual situation was handled, I think I would have enjoyed the book more, but that really pulled everything down for me. But I think I am sensitive to questioning plots like this right now.

  4. Caitlin @ Caitlin Althea

    December 22, 2019 at 8:06 PM

    Kal, this was a wonderful review as always! I gave this book four stars, but now that I’m reading your review, I’m berating myself for not noticing the homophobia and other questionable aspects of it! I think the only thing I noticed was the use of a Romani slur, but I should’ve noticed how nasty everyone was to Oliver for his relationship with James.
    Also, I know next to nothing about Shakespeare, so I didn’t know that M.L. Rio was using the lines way out of context and that they were literally stealing pages from the plays. That sounds awful, and I’m sorry that this book disappointed you! I hope your next reads will be better <3

    1. Kal

      December 31, 2019 at 7:42 PM

      Don’t feel badly for not noticing the homophobia, Caitlin! I looked through my friend’s reviews on Goodreads and no one seemed to really mention it, so for awhile I was wondering if it was just me. (It wasn’t, I showed some photos to a couple of friends.) We all are varying levels of aware of these things, and we are always learning! I think it just screamed at me because I am pan questioning (wow, this is the first I’ve written it), so I was pretty sensitive to it. I am glad you enjoyed the book and thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Laurie

    December 23, 2019 at 8:48 AM

    This is an interesting review and it convinced me not to pick up this book. I have a feeling I won’t like it either and I will end up DNF’ing it. The hype surrounding this book is the exact reason why this was on my TBR in the first place. Oh well, time to make room for another book! Thank you for this review and for saving me from yet another disappointing book!

    1. Kal

      December 31, 2019 at 7:47 PM

      This is definitely a book that you will either love or hate, I don’t see many in-between reviews for it haha.

  6. Veronika @ Wordy and Whimsical

    December 26, 2019 at 1:40 PM

    OH MY GOD, YES, I’m SO GLAD you pointed out the fact that Oliver and the cop/detective are both all “I’m so confused, IDEK exactly what happened!!” and then the mystery was super-straightforward. To me it didn’t even make sense that the detective wanted to hear the story from Oliver when he pretty much already knew what happened. He was there to arrest JAMES when Oliver gave himself up, after all. Other than that, I agree with everything you’ve written. Great review!

    1. Kal

      December 31, 2019 at 8:11 PM

      I WAS SO CONFUSED??? Like, it seemed pretty damn straight forward to me… and them. LOL. I really wish I could have just been swept away by this one, but I’m comforted to know I’m not the only one with this reading experience.

  7. Destiny @ Howling Libraries

    January 4, 2020 at 9:09 PM

    Oof… I’m second-guessing putting this one on my 2020 TBR now. :/ I really, REALLY struggle with bullying in books, especially when it’s aimed at someone’s sexuality. I know it’s a real part of life, even among friend groups, but like you said, it’s not necessarily something I want to be forced to sit through in a book. I guess maybe I’ll give this book one more try and just go into it fully prepared to DNF if I get uncomfortable? Hmn. I don’t know now. >_> But thank you for being so honest and candid about it!

    1. Kal

      January 10, 2020 at 10:25 AM

      I was afraid to say anything to you when I saw it on my TBR, but maybe at least it won’t be so bad now that you know??? Like I am honestly still so confused why no one else has said anything about it in reviews? I LOOKED. It’s weird and to me very glaring. I sincerely hope you enjoy the book more than I did, love!

  8. Haley

    January 13, 2020 at 3:03 AM

    When I heard about your reactions to this book, I realized it just wasn’t going to be for me, I hadn’t added it to the tbr but I was intrigued and waiting to see what my friends would say so I really appreciate you writing this review, you were honest and your opinion really holds a lot of sway with me, sorry this was a bust!

    1. Kal

      February 3, 2020 at 2:50 PM

      Thank you so much, Haley! I feel so bad writing negative reviews, especially a book so many of my friends enjoyed, but this one just didn’t work for me at all.

  9. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall

    January 16, 2020 at 8:40 AM

    Ah darn, I’m sorry to see that this one was a disappointment, Kaleena! The pacing sounds tedious, and I don’t know how I would be able to read through this pages upon pages of the characters acting out scenes! After reading your review, this one really doesn’t sound like it’s for me, and I can’t imagine myself feeling comfortable reading about so much unchallenged bullying and harassment. I hope your next read is better, love! <3

    1. Kal

      February 16, 2020 at 2:52 PM

      I am still so freaking sad that this book wasn’t enjoyable for me, Kelly! And I am so confused that I seem to be alone in the fact that the book made me uncomfortable, to the point that I question reality. Plenty of people enjoyed the book so if the premise sounds interesting to you, I’d say take my experience with a grain of salt but adjust expectations.

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