If We Were Villains: a Book to Challenge Boundaries


Aleigh Maximon, Reporter

If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio is a dramatic, adventurous, Shakespearean-inspired, and mystery-packed book, written by M. L. Rio. Rio is an author, music writer, and former bookseller.

If We Were Villains debuted in 2017 with its release by Flatiron Books. This has led to Rio becoming an international bestselling author and is now published in ten countries and six languages. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in early modern English literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.

If We Were Villains explores a group of seven fourth-years (seniors) in a prestigious private boarding school, Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a school that concentrates on Shakespearean plays. This school and its plays are filled with fierce competition and clear ambition. The group of seven includes Richard, who is the alpha male of the group; he always gets the major roles and is seen as superior but arrogant and condescending. Alexander is a heavy drug user; he never declines to party but always gives the best advice. James is sweet, and quiet but fierce; he is the only one who occasionally goes against Richards’s word.

Philipa and Wren are often in the background. They aren’t the main characters but have a huge impact on how the story plays out; although their presence is small, it’s important. Meredith is a beautiful seductress; she is honest and fierce, and she is the instigator of most problems but is a beautiful actress.

Finally, there is Oliver, the main character. He doesn’t see his potential and thinks of himself as a side character, but everyone else sees him as important. He is kind, self-sufficient, and so loyal. He would do anything for the ones he loves.

The students of the school all belong to their own groups: the theater kids, philosophers, dancers, and musicians. The group of seven belongs to the theater kids and are Shakespeareans. The seven of them live together on the far side of a lake in a small stone building, called the castle. The castle is a significant setting in the novel, because it is a place for the group to have their seclusion and privacy, allowing them to party, study, and deceive.

The group has been together since they were first years (freshmen) and have always played the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, and extra. During their fourth and final year, the power and roles start to shift, leading to previously good-natured competition becoming ugly. One morning, the group wakes up to a hideous discovery, forcing them to put their best acting skills forward; having to convince the police and school they are innocent.

Personally, I have never attended a performing arts boarding school, but I was easily able to connect with the characters, setting, and conflicts. This book coveys the appealing connection of found family; it shows how people with such different upbringings can be connected although they are so different. The upbringing of the characters is a big part of their roles in the novel. Although I have never personally experienced their feelings, I was able to effortlessly connect with their emotions throughout the entire book. I was captivated by how real the characters seemed to be.

This book challenges the boundaries between life, acting, and Shakespeare. It is a must-read for all who love mystery, teen drama, and Shakespeare.