Murderous Shakespearean Teens: a review of If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Let us turn to an under-theorized but much-loved genre, which I have just decided to name “Murderous Shakespearean Teens”.

We’re thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; we’re thinking Donna Tartt’s A Secret History; at a pinch, we might think of Peter Nowalk and Shonda Rhimes’ How To Get Away With Murder. There are not many more examples, although I suspect there are quite a few Murderous Shakespearean Teens sitting in a YA publisher’s slushpile somewhere.

These stories all share three central traits: violence (physical or otherwise), glamour, and youth.

They remind us of our own university days, when the sun was almost always shining and there was always time for one more drink before the essay deadline. Despite this idyllic setting, we were artistically miserable: quoting Shakespeare’s tragedies to one another while barely holding back the tears. There were dramatic rows and doomed love affairs, and everyone was “young, slim, sad and beautiful”*.

Of course it was not really like that. It rains sometimes; people get older and disappoint each other, not necessarily in that order. Even the greatest artists have to make dentist appointments and do the washing up.

One of the reasons that If We Were Villains is so good, is that the author follows the traditions of the genre – but remains honest. This may be the first Shakespeare-inspired novel where people have to pay off their student loans. M.L. Rio casts a critical eye over the Murderous Shakespearean Teens, and remarks that their college looks remarkably like a cult. Not even Waugh could admit that explicitly.

The scene is this: at a tiny liberal arts college somewhere in North America, six students have been chosen as the gilded youth by their teachers. They are all cast in a production of Julius Caesar and, while they travel deeper into their characters on stage, one of them gets murdered in real life.

Because the cast are all theatre kids, they speak in an absurd cargo-cult language made up of Shakespeare quotes. But Rio just about pulls it off. The story is told by one of the actors in later life, and this flashback style of writing grants them enough self-awareness to render the dialogue bearable.

The characters are well-drawn, and the plot is exquisitely designed. I found this book particularly satisfying because of the pyschological pay-offs; some parts of the plot are obvious, but the character development is subtle. M.L. Rio has that rare knack for foreshadowing events and epiphanies without making them too bloody obvious. The tension rises slowly, like the tide coming in, until you realize with a sudden shock that it’s page 250 and you’re in it up to your neck.

This book took me by surprise; I was ready to be irritated (sorry, theatre kids), but instead I was intrigued. The ending is ever so slightly weak – just a little too obscure – but I have every intention of re-reading the book to figure it out. This one is well worth a place on your TBR pile.

Buy the book from your preferred retailer here.


*This quotation is from Jonathan Tropper’s How To Talk To A Widower, which I recommend to miserable teenagers everywhere.

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