Sensible, grounded Year 11 student Lily falls out with her long-term best mate, Tilly, as she needs someone to confide in as never before. A series of apparent suicides following a spate of cyber nastiness rocks her school, and her own group of friends. She finds herself turning increasingly to Benedict, a boy she meets online, opening up to him and telling him things she would think twice about revealing to anyone else. But when he starts to demand increasing intimacy, her instincts tell her something is not right. Who is Benedict? And is anything that happens online what it seems?
This is an immensely well-conceived and seriously creepy cyber thriller, which draws you into its dark heart on a spinning thread of intrigue, until you too are left wondering if you have anywhere to hide. We are spared none of the potential grim consequences of being too trusting, and there are some killer insights into the dangers of the internet: ‘Like the sea floor, it’s dark down there. And just like the sea floor, it is a wilderness left uncharted. All kinds of monsters lurk in the depths…’. Rai starkly exposes the frequent senselessness of evil too. As Lily puts it, ‘sometimes there is no reason’. This is a book which leaves no screen image unlooked at, however nasty.
I have a few quibbles. Very occasionally, the writing – normally so taut–is a bit schlocky, such as when chapters end lines like, ‘She does not know it yet, but soon Girl #2 will be sleeping for ever’, or ‘Life without a true friend – it ain’t worth living’. And do we need The OTHER to be melodramatised in capital letters? The motivations of the predatory Spider are only partially explained, and sometimes he feels more like a comic book villain than a flesh and blood predator of the kind young people seriously need to be aware of. I wondered too if such a calculating web spinner would really risk targeting a group of young people from the same school? And sometimes I questioned the sheer naivety of some of the characters’ actions: whether they served the plot more closely than reality. ‘If you were being targeted, it would be obvious, surely…’, says one of the characters. Well, perhaps.
I am such an admirer of Bali Rai’s writing though. He is so good on the particular insecurities that plague young people, and few writers nail the complex relationships, the diversity of interplay, and the dialogue between groups of young people quite as well as he does. I highly recommend Web of Darkness: a cautionary tale, made thrilling, chilling and intensely, horribly real. It should be read by anyone– not just teenagers – who spends at least 50% of their lives online. It’s horribly easy to do so these days, and that is exactly the point.