Tangled Webs by Lee Bross (Disney Hyperion, 23 June 2015)
This book is a massive disappointment. The premise has great promise. 18th-19th century London is a setting that always draws me, and I love the sound of a teenage female blackmailer. But this book just didn't live up to that premise.
Sixteen-year-old Arista is forced to attend London's balls and parties in disguise as Lady A to gain the secrets of the elite and use these secrets to obtain money – but not for herself. An orphan girl taken away at a young age to serve an abusive master called Bones, Arista has grown up in poverty, stealing only for the profit of Bones while earning nothing herself. One day, however, Arista meets Graeden Sinclair, the son of a merchant, and she starts to believe that she can escape and her life may change for the better and that she can be free of Bones' tyranny once and for all.
I actually really liked Bross' writing style; it was pretty and atmospheric, descriptive without being overly elaborate. But the story itself was unfortunately mediocre. It was unimaginative and just not very exciting, and it all felt incredibly rushed and quite contrived in places. Nothing that happened felt of consequence to me. The characters were not very well-developed either and I didn't really get a sense of them as real people, only as a collection of tropes. Arista could have died and I wouldn't have cared. I was constantly tempted to give up on the book but my hope that it would get better saw me through. It didn't really get better, though.
I disliked how Arista spends the whole book wanting to go to India as her escape: wow, India is such a wonderful and exotic place! TEA. SPICES. etc. etc. Her fixation on India and India alone felt like uncomfortable fetishisation to me, especially given the history of British exploitation and colonisation of India. It would have been fine if Arista really wanted to travel and see the whole world and the focus was just on leaving England behind because of its associations with her past, but instead she was just obsessed with India and India alone and in really superficial ways.
There was also some sort of love triangle with Arista, Grae, and Nic, another orphan who had grown up in the service of Bones and therefore whom Arista has known most of her life. Nic for some reason insisted on calling Arista gypsy even though Arista commented in the narrative that she really hated being called gypsy. And then Arista actually dressed up as a 'gypsy' in the book...? This again felt problematic to me and I was just totally confused about where that whole thing came from.
The romance was honestly the worst part of the story. Arista and Grae fall in insta-love, and hey, I can forgive insta-love if there's more development afterwards to demonstrate that there really is some kind of foundation there for the two characters to have a romantic relationship beyond simply their instant initial attraction to each other. But there is barely anything. I don't know if I've ever read a romance more astonishingly lacking in development, and this is something I complain about often. I kept wondering if I'd just missed out on giant chunks of the story where Arista and Grae actually get to know each other better.
In the end, I just did not care about this story or any of its characters in the slightest.