The Veiled Web by Catherine Asaro is an intricately plotted romance set in 2010. The story brings together a ballerina, Lucia del Mar, who spends virtually all of her spare time on the World Wide Web (WWW), and Rashid al-Jazari, who invented an internet browser being used in 2010. Rashid is also developing a Virtual Reality (VR) suit to go with his WWW browser that will enable all sorts of startling experiences. An act of political terrorism brings the two together. Lucia, a Hispanic-American Catholic, tries to fit into Rashid's Muslim world, living within his secluded family enclave in Morocco. And if that isn't alien enough, Lucia also meets and interacts with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) personality, Zaki, who exists only inside Rashid's computer. Can Rashid and Lucia come together amongst all of these conflicting milieus?
Carol: Was this the first book of Asaro's you read?
Linda: Yes, this is my first Asaro, but it won't be my last.
Carol: It's my first, too, although I've had 3 of hers in my "To Be Read" (TBR) stack for over a year. I've been too intimidated by Asaro's scientific background to dive into them. It is a shame that I put them off. Of course, the covers are part of the reason. Until this book, she had very SF-based covers and I couldn't imagine romance playing much of a part in them.
Linda: For me it's been a combination of too much science and the fact that many science fiction novels don't have a happy ending. A "Happily Ever After" (HEA) ending is a real requirement for me. I may be shallow, but when I close a book, I want to have a smile on my face.
Carol: Asaro won a Sapphire Award, so I think she's had other happy endings.
Linda: What's the Sapphire Award?
Carol: The Sapphire Award is presented by the Science Fiction Romance newsletter for the best SF/Romance novel of the year, Asaro won it for Catch The Lightning a few years ago. As far as I know, it is the only award there is for a book combining romance with another genre.
Linda: Asaro expressed great enthusiasm for romance at Celebrate Romance 1999, so I'm not surprised. She asked questions about what romance readers liked to see in their novels, and she was friendly and genuinely interested in our viewpoints. It was so nice to have an author who was embracing the genre, especially when so many seem to be moving away from it.
I especially liked the heroine in The Veiled Web. Lucia was someone whose feelings I could identify with. Her emotions rang true to me.
Carol: Must have been a relief for you after "that jade, Roxie," as you called the heroine we talked about last month.
Linda: I'll say.
Carol: What did you think of the intricate plot? I liked it but probably could have used less of the foreign terrorists element. I'm not much on the spy stuff since over-dosing on that genre years ago via Robert Ludlum, le Carre and others.
Linda: The main problem with the "spy stuff" was that it served to keep the couple separate a great deal of the time. I liked them together so much, I would have liked a bit more interaction. But, the "spy stuff" also brings up a major plot point for the heroine.
Carol: What was that?
Linda: The "spy stuff" made it necessary for Lucia to be isolated in Rashid's home, where she truly became a "stranger in a strange land."
Carol: True. And the best part of the whole separation was I got to meet my favorite character in the whole book, Zaki. "He" is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer program Lucia talks to and befriends in Rashid's computer. His usage reminds me of Star Wars. George Lucas created these great characters out of a robot, a gadget, and furry creatures. Asaro does the same with Zaki. I frankly found the AI culture less off-putting than Rashid's family's Muslim one.
Linda: At the point Zaki is introduced, we don't even know if Rashid is a good guy or not. As Lucia converses with what is essentially Rashid's alter ego, we come to know the essential goodness of the man. Lucia actually realized she loved Rashid via her conversations with Zaki. Revealing the character of the hero, through an AI is an ingenious plot device.
Carol: I hadn't really thought about that aspect of it, but now that you bring it up, it really does ring true. What else did you notice with this device?
Linda: Lucia also came to understand Rashid's feelings about her when Zaki reads to her the e-mails that Rashid had never had the courage to send to her. I found it endearing to discover this powerful, self-contained man was not quite as sure of himself as he seemed. It really made an impact on me.
Carol: But isn't it weird that she was more at home with Zaki than with Rashid's huge, extended family? I don't know if I can see them with Rashid's first wife, the radical feminist, at all. I had a very hard time with his relatives; the lack of acceptance and hostility was so palpable.
Linda: It sounds like it really pushed some buttons for you. Do you have any idea why?
Carol: I think it is my own mixed marriage background that makes me leery of everything Rashid's relatives do in the book. My parents married in the 1940s as an Italian Catholic mother and New England WASP father. Believe me, I understand two extended families hoping you will follow each of their ways instead of the other side's!
Linda: I had a completely different take on Rashid's family, especially his Mother. I thought her attitude was more "watchful" than anything else. She saw him marry out of his faith and background once before and be very hurt by it. I think she was afraid that he would be hurt by Lucia, too. You could see her softening as Lucia made concessions to keep them from losing face in the community or hurting Rashid.
Carol: I saw it as the beginning of one long sales job with the goal of converting Lucia and making sure her future children would be raised as Muslims. I found the book very authentic in this regard. Asaro has the way people behave in mixed marriages dead on.
Linda: Yes, she does capture a lot of what I've experienced in my own marriage, which is of mixed faith. Particularly the need to compromise and the occasional points you encounter where you just feel you cannot compromise. But, if you are going to stay together, some accommodation has to be made. Watching Lucia and Rashid find a way around these obstacles was very realistic to me. What also seemed very true to life was how quickly points of confrontation can develop and often blind-side you.
Carol: Hostility between the factions is often the game plan in mixed marriages. My experience was to turn away from the one doing the overselling and towards the one doing the underselling.
I was also irritated with the way Rashid and his family complained about her manner of dress and that no man could watch her at dance practice. Again, this is very authentic on Asaro's part. I was easily able to empathize with Lucia when I thought about how pissed off I would be in those circumstances. This is probably the strongest, most accurate depiction I've ever read of the rocky road to true love via a mixed marriage.
Linda: Lucia's quandary about donning a veil along with the other women seemed utterly realistic. I liked Lucia's decision. It reminded me of a visit to my husband's home in a small town in Utah. I drove to the next town to have coffee, rather than embarrass my Mormon mother-in-law. I was able to bend, but I didn't give up the coffee. Kind of a happy medium. So, I was comfortable with Lucia's decision.
Carol: It was kind of a surprise for me to find this very emotional material in this novel. I think that with Asaro's Ph.D. in chemistry plus her background as a dancer, I was expecting this to be a real tome put out by some sort of superwoman. I'm so glad I was wrong.
Linda: I agree, although this book is labeled Science Fiction, there are very real human emotions depicted here. In fact, I found myself skimming some of the technical stuff to get back to the "good" stuff. I really liked both of these lead characters. I liked the way Asaro shows both of their viewpoints without resorting to "right" and "wrong" labels. You see their differences and also the things that they have in common.
Carol: Gosh, Linda, I am really a science dummy. My idea of science in college was psychology and I certainly never darkened the door of any Chem lab while there. Nevertheless, I loved the science she put in this book. She combines a Virtual Reality suit with the WWW, has Zaki and Lucia travel into the web together, surfing to exotic places worldwide, all without leaving Rashid's suite in the enclave. This was great stuff.
Linda: Not only was it easy to understand, it was also easy to envision our world moving in the directions on the Internet that Asaro charted. In fact, Zaki was such a believable character because we can envision a being like him in our future.
Carol: I hadn't thought of a being like him before, but now I find myself wishing I had an AI friend just like him sitting in my computer.
Linda: Gee, I don't know Carol, it would be kind of sad for an AI to be your only friend . It's bad enough that all my friends have .com after their names! Personally, I was very taken by the theme of isolation. The "harem" that Rashid's family lived in was almost a metaphor for the isolation that both Rashid and Lucia experienced.
Carol: I agree with you that these two are perfect together. Lucia is really a very similar personality to brilliant, loner Rashid. The conflict is in trying to bridge the gap between Lucia, an American dancing on stages throughout the world, and the Muslim Rashid with his huge extended family. They otherwise have a great deal in common. Their very heated mutual attraction helped them find a way to bridge the gap.
Linda: This is a very complex novel showing worlds within worlds. The artificial world of the computer seemed as real and sometimes more understandable to me than the Muslim one. Maybe that's because we are too much like Rashid's ex-wife Brigid, the feminist.
Carol: The very fact that Rashid married a feminist first time out explains in a nutshell why he goes for Lucia - this man wants an intelligent, western woman very badly although culturally he's not supposed to. Asaro brings the same intelligence to 2010 Morocco that Kinsale brought to England two centuries ago.
Linda: One thing that really dazzled me was Asaro's lush use of language. Asaro paints word pictures. I could "see" Rashid's home and other scenes in my mind's eye. I also had an image of Rashid all through the book. I pictured him as a "young Omar Sharif" - not a bad image to visualize.
Carol: Ah, yes, I can see Sharif now in his Lawrence of Arabia days wearing his sheik outfit. He was devastating and very like the description of Rashid.
Linda: I have to admit there was only one thing I missed in this book.
Carol: What was that?
Linda: I know this is going to totally wreck my reputation for liking "sweet" books, but I missed the explicit sex scenes. This couple was so passionate and Rashid was so romantic, that the "fade to black" sex scene was a little bit of a let down. This was certainly a small loss, but to my surprise, I did miss seeing a little more of the passion between them in a more explicit way.
Carol: Boy, you sure can't make up your mind! Last time we discussed the sexual turnoffs Johnson served up to you and now you want Asaro to be hotter! I'd hate to write sex scenes to please you. LOL!
Linda: Not to mention that I love Dara Joy! There are many romance authors who have got the sexual mix just right. It is not the "sex" that bothers me about Johnson, it is the lack of love. In Joy's hot scenes there are always moments of tenderness and love. Asaro's couple was obviously in love that a little more passion would have been fine. I'm sure it is difficult getting the right mix, but many authors manage it successfully.
Carol: Okay, the amount of explicit sexuality in a romance book doesn't matter that much to me. I will tell you one complaint I've got - I'd like to see Asaro get rid of some of the spy and terrorist plotting which Suzanne Brockmann does so much better with her Navy SEAL books. Instead, I'd like to see more of the emotional intensity that you find in, say, Mary Balogh's romances.
Linda: The "spy stuff" did stretch credulity at times - but it also showed the strengths of the couple and their ability to function as a team. Also, the fact that Rashid literally was willing to risk his life for Lucia really endeared him to me. Asaro also shows the very real pain that they both felt as difficult decisions were made. I really liked this book a lot.
Carol: I admit that the things I'm saying I'd like to see change are just degrees of excellence I'd like to see for the future. Asaro has written a superior novel that is unlike any other romance book of 1999. I say that in the most positive sense too.
Linda: Frankly, I was just dazzled by this book. I was hooked from the first scene where Lucia is dancing at the White House. Asaro literally communicates what a ballerina feels on stage as her mind shuts down and her body takes over, melding her with the music. I am going to hunt up her backlist - uh-oh, I feel a glom coming on - which means the TBR mountain will grow once again.
Carol, since covers are a special interest of yours, I think we should discuss the cover of The Veiled Web. It's a real eye grabber and very well done. The combination of the integrated circuit, the architectural style of the Middle East, and the hint of mystery in Lucia's expression captured the essence of the storyline.
Carol: I saw Lucia as being inside the web, Rashid's computer, and the Moslem enclave. Each of these are little alien worlds, and she's able to visit them all without ever leaving planet Earth. Lucia is depicted as very expressive with her hands, which is what you would expect from a dancer. My impression from the cover is that she is not only searching for herself, but searching within these alien worlds. It is a very clever image.
I get the feeling that this book was put together by people who really knew what they were doing, that the cover artist, the editor, and the marketing department all worked together with the writer.
Linda: If Asaro's sales are good on this genre pushing book, it may open doors for other authors to stretch their wings. We know that many of the best-selling authors are able to move around between sub-genres and to cross genre lines, but that it's difficult for lesser-known authors to do so. Perhaps publishers will lower some of the barriers that sometimes keep an author in a genre box. It's a shame when an author is not permitted to stretch her wings. Ultimately, it is the reader who loses. I think the consensus in on-line chat groups is that we would like more variety.
Carol: My impression has been that the publishing industry wants the romance author to write either a novel set in the regency with a duke or earl, or to change completely over to present day humorous romances, both types having 2-3 explicit sex scenes. I've been very frustrated with that mindset in 1999.
Linda: Well, I guess I am lucky. I like historicals set in the regency with dukes and earls and perhaps a bit of humor and some mystery, so I've had a lot to pick from. But, I like variety too and tend to mix up my reading a bit. I have found more humorous books in the last year or two to read and they are my favorites.
Carol: I need more books which follow a unique path, like this one takes.
Linda: This book falls into several categories - it really pushes genre boundaries. It is an intricate book and deserves to be a big seller. The problem for the publisher may be in marketing the book to those who will not see past the SF on the spine. But in general, romance readers are willing to do a little work to find a great book. The Veiled Web has a happy ending, but it is a believable, realistic ending too - not a tacked on ending. I would love to revisit this couple somewhere down the road. An interesting book could certainly be written about their children. Catherine, are you listening?
Carol: Readers will find it shelved in science fiction instead of romance, but in my bookstores we're talking about one aisle away. So with ten to fifteen extra steps, you could be clutching it in your hot little hands.
Linda: I think the readers know where we stand and we're ready to wrap up. Why don't you summarize, Carol?
Carol: Okay. Asaro has written an excellent novel for the romance fan wanting to stretch her wings into the blended genre territory. Her setting it only ten years into the future puts it even more in the romance world rather than the SF world. The barrier between a couple based on their vast cultural and religious differences is well delineated plus integrated with the development of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence via the WWW. The story follows all the romance conventions and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to read it. We both heartily recommend it.
Linda: Next month we are reading Soft Focus, the new hardcover by Jayne Ann Krentz. Carol and I will be bringing very different perspectives to the book. I am a hard-core Krentz fan, who was a little bit disappointed with her last book. It was a good book, it just wasn't "prime Krentz." Much that I love about Krentz's writing was soft-pedaled or missing, as she ventured deeper into romantic suspense. Carol has read only one JAK novel and will be able to judge the book more strictly on its own merits. Should make for some interesting repartee.
--Carol Irvin and Linda Hurst, with assistance from Sandi Morris, for
-- Pandora's Box
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