by N.M. Browne
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When Jessica Allendon receives an e-mail from someone claiming to have her same name, and asking to meet her at Waterloo Station in London, she and her best friend, Jonno, make the trip to London to find out about this person, who seems to have many things in common. When Jessica arrives at Waterloo, at the very beginning of N.M. Browne's Shadow Web, she only has moments to discover that her e-mail correspondent is her from another world before she suddenly finds herself in that alternative London, one which seems tremendously backwards to Jessica.
With the help of some strangers, Jessica finds herself in Soho Square, where she works as a secretary to Mrs. Lansdowne. She quickly becomes acquainted with Edie, a young servant girl who is her roommate. It turns out that Jessica has found herself in a world in which the servant class is still widespread among England's wealthy and the middle class is practically non-existent. At first, Jessica contents herself with trying to survive in this strange world and her strange circumstances, but she finds it nigh on impossible to masquerade as her doppelgänger, with James, the butler, coming on to her and Edie thinking that she's on some sort of drugs. The situation is made even worse with the discovery that one of her co-workers, Mr. Lansdowne's secretary, Johnny Roberts, is Jonno's doppelgänger.
Not only is the new London in which Jessica finds herself backwards socially, but, caught in the middle of a cold war, it is a far more fascist state than the one in which Jessica grew up. As Jessica tries to get acclimatized to this strange culture, she also learns that the Lansdowne house is a hotbed of intrigue and she can't be sure whose side anyone is on. Even worse, she has no idea where her double stood with regard to the power structure, and she realizes that lack of knowledge could get her into trouble before she can get home to her own world.
Throughout much of the novel, Jessica has an oversimplistic view of her situation. Even as she comes to realize that things are more complex and not everything (or even anything) is black and white, Jessica still tries to pigeonhole people and their motives into a for-her or against-her dichotomy. On the other hand, Browne is trying to portray a world of complex conspiracies and never manages to get much past that black and white situation. This weakness may be because the world of the Lansdownes is seen through Jessica's eyes, or it could be because Browne is targeting a younger audience, but the conspiratorial aspect of Shadow Web never quite comes together.
Using Jessica as her point of view character, Browne focuses all of her attention on the strange world in which Jessica finds herself. This does, however, leave open the possibility for two more books, one following the other Jessica as she tries to exist in our own world, and another in which she must clean up after the mess Jessica made in Shadow Web. Although Shadow Web ties up Jessica's own story, and Browne tries to give an indication of what happens to the other Jessica afterwards, Browne does leave numerous loose ends and hints about those other tales.
Shadow Web doesn't entirely work. It is at times simplistic in its plotting, even when it is trying to be complex. Browne's decision to keep Jessica a loner, without friends or comrades she can trust has a tendency to keep her at arm's length from the reader as well. The world she builds up is intriguing, but just as Jessica, and the reader, is beginning to get a handle on the world, Browne steps away and pulls Jessica out of the situation which allows her to see how this new world is set up.