Move over Secret History, there’s a new dark academia bible in town. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio follows the story of stage actors, Richard, Wren, Meredith, Filippa, James, and Oliver. Set at the illustrious Dellecher Classical Conservatory, the players study the works of Shakespeare, putting on grand plays and modern interpretations of the classics. At the start of their fourth year everything seems to be falling into place; they know their roles and are graduating with a diploma that will secure them spots at the most renowned theater companies around the globe. That is, until Richard starts taking his role of Caesar in the fall production a little too seriously. As Richard’s acting and temper get out of control, the rest of the thespians must decide how to confront their friend, which puts them on a collision course that will alter each of their fates.
Set in the late 1990s, If We Were Villains offers a fresh perspective on the dark academia trope, started by the novel The Secret History by Donna Tartt. While The Secret History is an undoubted feat of writing and storytelling, I found If We Were Villains a more enjoyable read. Rio incorporates lines of Shakespeare plays into the characters dialogue, allowing the reader to learn parts of the play with the characters. Through this we are able to understand how the plot of the plays they perform and the characters that they play affect their character arcs later on. I also found more characters likeable. One of the hallmarks of dark academia novels is morally gray characters, people who do terrible things for sort of okay reasons. That is still true with this book, but we see their innocence more and are able to feel more sympathy for them, because they have a true villain in Richard. Finally, there is better representation in If We Were Villains. The book has both Latinx and LGBTQ characters, and unlike The Secret History, the author does not use homophobia to create tension between characters. If We Were Villains will draw you into the magical words of William Shakespeare, take you on a whirlwind journey through the lines, lies, and love of these six players, and will leave you utterly obsessed with this book.