Review: Tangled Web by Lee Rowan

Brendan Townsend is a young man who is very loyal to his friends. So when Tony—his best friend, occasional lover, and a complete screw-up—comes to him in trouble, Brendan is determined to help. Tony is being blackmailed by the owner of a “molly house”, the private club that Tony—and other like-minded gentlemen—frequent in order to indulge their entertainment needs.

Brendan is disappointed in his friend, but goes to seek the help of his older brother’s military commander. Philip Carlisle is a gentleman to Society, and also a man Brendan’s brother trusted completely and told his younger brother to seek out if he ever was in trouble. Philip is a 40-year-old widower, and finds himself charmed, for the first time, by an attractive young man. Brendan is likewise besotted with hero-worship, especially when Philip turns the tables on the blackmailer and saves the day for many of Society’s closeted sons.

What follows is a tale of desire, regrets, cross-country pursuit, hidden identities, lovers torn asunder then reunited, clever cover stories, and the requisite pistols at dawn.

Review by Hayden Thorne

The first thing that caught my attention when reading Rowan’s novel was the way it takes on one of classic literature’s favorite studies in dichotomy: city versus country. It’s a subject that’s always been a favorite of mine as well, and Rowan explores the diverging elements between the two in great detail.

A Regency fan wouldn’t be disappointed with the settings and their treatment. London’s full of activity of both high and low society. We see the wealthy dazzle each other in glittering ballrooms, dinner-parties, or St. James’ Park. In these scenes, we’re treated to character interactions reminiscent of Austen. There are a lot of playful exchanges. There’s quite a bit of witty banter among members of the Townsend family, and I was very pleased to see a good deal of attention placed on Brendan’s relationship with his siblings, especially Elspeth, his younger sister and to whom he’s closest. As expected from the titled, their cares are pretty much focused on the usual problems involving courtship and landing the perfect husband.

Those scenes, along with the more sordid ones involving molly houses, are laid out in vivid detail, with each scene sequeing nicely into the next, but without the clunkiness of too many details that’s always the danger in writing historical fiction. The study in contrast is just as sharp within London as it is between London and Kent. One moment we’re surrounded by wealth, music, and lively conversation; the next moment, we’re skulking around in shadows, walking past shut doors, and being surrounded by masked gentlemen. There’s a stuffy, claustrophobic feeling in those scenes, and even outside Dobson’s establishment, private lodgings – normally a safe haven – shrink under the strain of fear that dogs Tony and Brendan.

Kent, just like London, is beautifully drawn – an idyll in and of itself, with gorgeous expanses, untouched Nature, and peaceful solitude. And just like London, it also has its own dark side, with Carlisle helping the local magistrate solve a murder that has a connection with a smuggling ring. The oppressive shadow of exposure, disgrace, or worse, capital punishment follows Brendan and Carlisle to Kent, though its effects aren’t as immediate and frightening there as they are in London.

The relationship between Carlisle and Brendan begins on a business-like note, but its highlight is the connection they enjoy whenever they talk about horses. I love how those scenes unfold so casually, with each man gradually shedding layers of himself to the other. Even though they haven’t confessed their feelings to each other at that point, I still found those moments the most subtly romantic in the book, for their connection feels almost spiritual. In fact, I’d have been satisfied if they didn’t confess their love and simply carried on, their relationship deepening (perhaps without their knowledge) as they find greater commonality between them, though it would’ve stretched the story out much more.

That said, one of the difficulties I had with this book was the romance between Brendan and Carlisle after they reveal their feelings. I simply didn’t feel enough of a chemistry between them, partly because it’s pretty much Brendan who falls hard for Carlisle first, and the older man doesn’t really experience an emotional epiphany till late in the story. Once Brendan finally expresses himself to Carlisle, he starts behaving like a needy teenager in the bedroom, throwing himself at the older man, begging the latter not to be indecisive and so on, while Carlisle remains emotionally aloof and tentative (though the reasons are explored later in long introspective scenes). Yes, they make love, and Carlisle, for all his waffling, really does enjoy it and eventually realizes that he is in love with Brendan and that he needs to let go of his late wife’s specter. Despite that, however, there still seems to be something lacking in their emotional connection, which baffles me because I can’t really put a finger on what’s missing. And it’s because of it that the sex scenes have a bit of a jarring quality to them despite the fact that they’re very well-written.

There’s also a heavy-handedness in the novel’s focus on the dangers of homosexuality. Tony’s situation certainly makes that clear to the readers, but we’re constantly reminded of it through Brendan’s growing paranoia in London, Dobson’s cynical approach to his business, Carlisle’s accounts of soldiers being hanged, and Brendan’s godfather’s threats (directed at Dobson). Then there’s Elspeth and her engagement, her happy prospects a depressing reminder of the kind of world to which Brendan doesn’t belong and the loneliness and isolation (if not a loveless marriage) that define his future. While I think it’s great that such an important issue isn’t ignored or glossed over, it can drag a good story down if overdone – especially since, in this novel’s case, Rowan gives Kent (an understandable refuge for a couple like Carlisle and Brendan) a nicely realistic treatment as an alternative to London. Simply showing that the danger of discovery can creep into a quiet country retreat would have been enough to ground home the dangers after all that’s happened in London.

Minor niggling involves occasional dialogue that sounds more contemporary than the rest and the use of “college” versus “university.” The shifts in points of view also happen without a scene break, which can lead to somewhat confusing reading at times. But those didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of Tangled Web. On the whole, I found the story engaging and wonderfully surprising (i.e., in the subplots involving smuggling, the Townsend family, and Carlisle and Brendan’s love of horses), with Rowan’s approach to the romance refreshingly different despite the problem I had with regard to the characters’ chemistry. She shows a lot of respect for Regency England in her detailed exploration of so many disparate scenes, so much so that each location becomes a character itself, adding more dimension to the world against which Brendan and Carlisle’s stories unfold.

Buy the book: Amazon UK Amazon USA

2 Responses

  1. Can I just stick up for Lee’s use of college vs University? (As one of the people who advised her on it.)

    Most well to do men of the time would have gone to Oxford or Cambridge, both universities which operate on a college system (they still do, and if you’re talking to an Oxbridge person the first question is always ‘which college’?) The London universities were/are the same. So it’s not ‘college’ as per the modern American usage.

    Cheers

    Charlie

  2. One more example of a fine cover. Lee’s are fine evocations of time, place, theme, even romance…
    And without the need for steamy headless naked torsos.

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