If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio: The Dark Campus Novel I’ve Been Craving

If We Were Villains, ML RioFiction – Debut
Released April 11, 2017
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)


If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary

After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It

Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes

Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved

  • If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
  • The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
  • Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
  • What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like

  • References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote

Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.

Good for People Who Like…

Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories

Other Books You May Like

More dark, sinister campus novels:
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Looking for a specific book recommendation? I’ve got you covered!
Participate in a limited time, free trial of my

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. I would have to skim the Shakespeare parts because I’m sure I wouldn’t get them.

    Posted 4.27.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      You and me both 🙂

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  2. RK wrote:

    I saw that you were enjoying this one in an earlier post and decided to read it as well since I was in the mood for a literary thriller – great recommendation! I enjoyed it a lot. I was kind of hesitant to read it because I’m not that well-versed with Shakespeare but, you’re right, the Shakespeare excerpts/references are not that important to the overall story.

    Posted 4.27.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yay! Glad you enjoyed it and I was hesitant too…another friend had to tell me not to get hung up on the Shakespeare parts.

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  3. I’m so glad you liked If We Were Villains, too. I can’t imagine that it won’t make my top ten books of the year!

    Posted 4.27.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Mine too!

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  4. Naomi wrote:

    I never would have looked twice at this book because of its cover (not that it’s a bad cover – it’s just not one that appeals to me), so I’m glad I read your review. The premise sounds intriguing… I like the idea that something happened to a *group* of people.

    Posted 4.27.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      The cover is totally not up my alley either…ignore that! And I love the dynamic of the group of friends where the tentacles reach out in all directions.

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  5. Annie Romero wrote:

    Great Review!!! I wasn’t sure on it but I have added it to my list! I am reading The Killing Flower currently by W.K. Dwyer, it’s a war novel of sorts, but it’s more of a 9/11 novel and I have really loved it. killingflower.com is his informational site for it. I have a nephew in Iraq at the moment and he joined the Army after 9/11 to give back to this country who allows the freedoms he enjoys.

    Posted 4.28.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’ll have to check that out….9/11 novel sounds super interesting.

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  6. HEAVEN. I cherish Shakespeare so that should be okay even if I don’t understand all the references. This sounds wonderful.

    Posted 4.30.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Please please give it a shot!

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  7. I absolutely LOVED this book! I was put off by the Shakespeare quoting at first, but kind of fell into the rhythm of it as the book went on. Otherwise, you’re right that it’s very skim-able. I also can’t believe this was a debut novel, it reminded me so much of Donna Tartt!

    Posted 5.3.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I agree! It was very Donna Tartt…

      Posted 5.3.17 Reply
  8. Yes I loved it also. Even the Shakespeare bits. Very Donna Tartt. Loved Black Chalk also. Even a oldie in Australia like me.

    Posted 1.30.18 Reply
  9. This sounds great! I love campus novels and I really like Shakespeare so I’d probably get into those parts, too 🙂

    Posted 2.11.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Oh, you should definitely give it a try if you like Shakespeare!

      Posted 2.13.18 Reply

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive all new blog posts in one weekly email. Plus, news of special updates and offers!

You have Successfully Subscribed!