I found my copy of Catherine Asaro’s Veiled Web in the science fiction section of my local Borders, which is quite appropriate for a book that deals extensively with the fascinating subject of Artificial Intelligence. But the fact is, it could just as easily been shelved among the romances. The science in Veiled Web is fascinating (and given Asaro’s credentials, probably very accurate, but how would I know!); the romance is equally fascinating and should appeal to romance readers who appreciate unusual settings and situations.
Veiled Web is set in the not all that distant future, 2010, to be exact. Thus its world does not seem very different from our own, with one exception. Computer technology has continued to explode; web browsers now talk to us; virtual reality suits take the wearer into imaginative worlds; and the possibility of a thinking, feeling computer is approaching reality. Quite a challenge for a reader who uses a three
year old PowerBook and refuses to upgrade to Netscape Communicator because it’s too complex for her retro brain.
Lucia del Mar is the twenty-four year old prima ballerina for the avant garde Martinelli Dance Theater. Of Mexican and Spanish descent, Lucia is perfect for its creative combination of classical ballet and flamenco elements. After a performance for the King and Queen of Spain, Lucia is invited to a state dinner at the White House. There she meets the enigmatic but strikingly handsome Rashid al-Jazari. She learns that he is the CEO of an international company and is well known in the computer world. Neither the shy Lucia nor the reserved Rashid know how to break through their own barriers and the moment passes.
Several weeks later, Lucia is in Italy for a performance. There she once more encounters Rashid and discovers not only that he is her foremost fan, but also that he is the inventor of Websparks, the innovative talking browser that has been her window to the wider world. When Rashid offers to escort Lucia back to the theater, fate takes a hand. The two sip from the bottled water in the car and, drugged, are kidnapped by Rashid’s supposed bodyguard. Rashid manages to subdue their captors while they are airborne over the Mediterranean, but when they land in Libya, complications arise. The authorities refuse to free Lucia. Still reeling from the narcotic,
Lucia consents to Rashid's plan to get her free. And what a plan.
Thus, Lucia enters a strange world, because the al-Jazari family follows the traditional Moroccan custom of female seclusion. Rashid’s mother and sister-in-law and an assortment of cousins and aunts live almost completely shut off from the world. While Rashid understands Lucia’s shock and her difficulty in accepting this lifestyle, he asks that she stay hidden away until he can unravel the reasons for the kidnapping.
Mostly alone, because she cannot speak the language, Lucia does make one new friend -- Rashid’s incredible computer, Zaki, a machine so advanced and so powerful that it appears that Zaki not only thinks, but may well feel. And as Lucia begins to discover just how unique Zaki is, she begins to wonder if his existence doesn’t have something to do with the kidnapping.
I rather imagine the sci-fi fan will be enthralled with Asaro’s vision of the incredible possibilities inherent in a creation like Zaki, possibilities both for great good and for great evil. Even I was intrigued as I watched Zaki develop a personality and, yes, a conscience. The adventure fan will enjoy the suspense and action as the bad guys try to force Rashid to work for them.
And romance fans? Well, I do believe they will likewise find the developing relationship between a traditional Moroccan and an American ballerina most enjoyable. In Rashid, Asaro has created a complex hero; he is a brilliant scientist, a modern business executive, but also a man steeped in the beliefs and traditions of his religion. How can he accept that his wife, the woman he has admired from afar and come to love cannot live in his world, cannot live without performing?
Lucia is an equally interesting creation. She has given her life to her art, to the exclusion of almost everything else. She may come to love Rashid, may recognize his gentleness, his goodness, his idealism, his brilliance. But she cannot live his life; she cannot give up herself.
A Veiled Web is a rich and compelling book. Whether it is classified as romantic science fiction or science fiction romance, it succeeds in its prime purpose: to entertain its audience. I recommend that all those readers who say they want something different in their romances read Veiled Web. I am looking forward to reading many more of Asaro’s books, however they are classified.