If We Were Villains Is the Perfect Cold-Weather Dark Academia Read

M.L. Rio’s debut novel If We Were Villains is a murder mystery and psychological thriller.

MacMillan Publishers

M.L. Rio’s debut novel If We Were Villains is a murder mystery and psychological thriller.

If you are a fan of quill pens, gothic architecture, and striding down a candlelit hall in a dramatic coat, this time of year is probably your favorite. ‘Tis the season for tea, classical music, and a good read. This year, make If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio that read. Published in 2017, Rio’s first book is thrilling, dark and absorbs you immediately into its world.

The plot is framed as the memories of Oliver Marks upon his release from prison, as told to the former detective who put him there. Ten years ago, Marks and his six classmates were fourth-year Shakespearean acting students at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Illinois. They lived in a world of their own, learning and performing until the mysterious death of one of their tight-knit group changed everything. As Oliver walks the grounds of his old college, he explains their complicated relationships and the causes and eventual effects of their classmate’s passing.

If We Were Villains is defined by Shakespeare. The characters live and breathe the words, stories, and characters to the exclusion of all else, and often speak to each other in Shakespeare quotes. As the characters are introduced, the archetypes they represent are clear, powerful femme fatale Meredith to sarcastic troublemaker Alexander. Throughout the book, the students and the roles they play start to blend together until it is difficult for either them or the reader to distinguish between reality and performance.

It is fascinating to watch the group shift and crumble over the course of the plot and in the space of a few hundred pages, it truly feels as though months are passing. The relationship between Oliver and James, his roommate and best friend, is authentic, deep, and complex. When Oliver tries to explain their bond to the detective, he adds that “We were inseparable for four years. It is not something you can explain in a few minutes.”

The writing is rich and descriptive and truly transports you to a beautiful ballroom, a darkened theater, or a nighttime forest. Rio’s language is elegant and evokes powerful emotions as she explores the strength of human connection, and how the world of Shakespearean fantasy her characters live in can become obsessive and all too real. But you don’t have to be a student of the Bard to understand the power in their words. When Oliver and James play opposite each other (as Benvolio and Romeo, respectively) Oliver speaks the line “Be ruled by me, forget to think of her,” as he realizes the jealousy he feels towards his friend, who has fallen in love.

If We Were Villains begs the question of whether art imitates life or the other way around. It is jam-packed with tiny details that require reading and re-reading and is the perfect escapist thriller to curl up with on a dreary day.