by Lee Rowan, historical (2009)
Running Press, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-7624-3684-2
Poor Lee Rowan must have pulled the short straw when it comes to the cover art for Tangled Web. It's not every day that I see a cover that has me wondering whether the men on the cover are somehow biologically related to the horses in the lower part of the cover.
Tangled Web is more of a typical romance novel than the previous two books in Running Press's M/M romance imprint. This one doesn't have an epic scope feel to it and it doesn't feature long separations between the two main characters. This one is also set in Regency England, in the year 1812. It does feature the popular trope of pairing a young man with an older man, though, with the older man being predictably the straight-acting one whose closet door swings open as the story progresses.
Brendan Townsend, only 22 but already whining about everything like a crotchety old man, is lured by his friend with benefit Tony into a club called The Arbor during their trip to London. Brendan learns too late - when Tony is on stage getting serviced with gusto by a performer - that The Arbor is a private sex club for wealthy gentlemen who wish to indulge in that kind of hanky-panky. Naturally, our hero disapproves of the rampant promiscuity going on in that club as well as the threat of discovery that could happen when one is not careful in such places. He ditches the friend to flee back to his family as soon as he could.
However, the drama doesn't end there. Tony approaches Brendan later, claiming that he is being blackmailed by the owner of the club to return and put on a show. No doubt one of the wealthy gentlemen in the club has taken a shine to Tony. Brendan realizes that he has to help his silly friend, if only because of the possibility that Tony will do something stupid and drag Brendan further into the mess. His brother James suggests that Brendan seek the help of James's Navy buddy, Major Philip Carlisle. When Brendan first sees Philip, he almost falls onto his knees before Philip because he has to worship the beauty of that man. Thus, a romance is born.
Despite the focus on the romance, I find the relationship between Philip and Brendan to be curiously underdeveloped. A common problem I have with many gay romances is that the authors tend to portray the romance as static, perfect, the moment the two men look into each other's eyes, and as a result, the romance never grows or changes for the better or stronger as the story progresses. I have the same problem with the romance here, mostly because Brendan as a character doesn't grow or change, and as a result, the romance from his point of view is not believable. Brendan tends to treat everything to be all about him, and in his relationship with Philip, the attraction to Philip seems to be because Brendan finds him mighty hot and dependable. That's nice if Brendan is looking for a daddy figure, but I'd need more than this to believe that the two men are going to have a romance strong and real enough to last past the upcoming weekend.
Philip is a more developed character, but his character is a familiar one. A widower who loves his late wife but whose closet door swings open for the young lad, a man with some traumatic flashbacks to that war, a man who claims not to remember feeling as alive as he does when he's with Brendan - Philip's character is pretty generic, actually.
The suspense subplot isn't the most exciting as I never get this feeling that the main characters are ever in genuine danger. But I guess we need some kind of filler in the story as it won't do to have the characters just stand there and analyze their finer feelings to death.
Oh, and the writing in Tangled Web could be tightened up a little too. For example, in page 62, in a discussion about smuggling, Brendan tells Philip, "I have a brother in the Navy. He says that in some coastal towns, that's almost the whole of local industry." Now, the brother in question is James, whom I learn only a few pages ago knows Philip pretty well in the Navy. In fact, Philip feels that he owes James a big favor because James saved Philip from being shot in the past. James wrote a letter to Philip explaining clearly that Brendan is James's brother and Brendan needs help. So, why is Brendan explaining to Philip that he has a brother who is in the Navy? I think it will be less confusing to have Brendan say instead, "James said that in some coastal towns, that's almost the whole of local industry." After all, I'm sure Ms Rowan doesn't want readers to believe that she has forgotten what she wrote only a few pages ago, right?
On the bright side, I like how the author treats her characters' happily ever after. It's not too unrealistically sunny, but it's no Brokeback Mountain either.
To conclude, I feel that Tangled Web is an underdeveloped story. The author could have explored the characters' feelings for each other a little bit more so that the romance doesn't feel like some grown man's infatuation with a young man who doesn't seem mature enough to handle the relationship. While the structure of this story resembles that of a romance novel more than the previous two books in Running Press's M/M romance line, I think the romance in those two books made a bigger impact on me.
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