Review: Beyond the Veil by Stevie Woods

Captured by the aggressive pirate captain of a Barbary corsair ship off the North African coast in the latter half of the eighteenth century, David Jordan faces a life of slavery of the worst kind when he is taken to the specialist markets of Tripoli . However, the enigmatic man who finally buys him is not all what David expects.

Robert Charteris has a very personal reason for fighting against the iniquity of slavery and, in disguise, witnesses the disposal of the slave cargo from a captured English ship and, for the first time in fifteen years, Charteris feels an interest in another man.

His decision to rescue the young man has repercussions he could never have expected in this tale of high passion and forbidden love.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I admit I wanted to like this book from before I even picked it up. The Barbary pirates of the Ottoman Empire make a fabulous setting, rich with Arabian Nights romance, that isn’t explored enough, in my opinion. I would have picked the book up for nothing more than that.

‘Beyond the Veil’ makes great use of that setting to spin a tale that is equally balanced between action adventure and sensuality. It hits the ground running with the battle at sea during which David and his companions are captured by the mysterious pirate Malik, and keeps you turning pages through tense moments, exciting rescues, exotic voyages etc right to the end. As this is happening, David’s awareness of his own desires mounts and he has to come to terms with the fact that he is in love with another man – his rescuer, Robert Charteris.

This is a fast paced, entertaining novel with more than a flavour of the mysterious East, and I can recommend it on that level alone. I can also recommend it for the slow and sultry way that David experiences his sexual awakening. The sex scenes are some of the best in the book, and I really enjoyed the escalation of confusion, UST, fascination and finally abandon.

I did, however, have a couple of problems with the book which prevented me from enjoying it as wholeheartedly as I wanted to. A nitpick struck me in the first page – why are the pirates firing their cannons while their own boarding party are on the deck of David’s ship? They’ll hit their own men! A similar problem occurs during another chase at sea – the pirate ship, while coming up behind its prey, fires ‘a shot across the bow’. You can’t shoot across the front of a ship while you’re behind it.

These things stand out to me because I write Age of Sail stories myself, and the mechanics of sea-battles are of interest to me. I hesitated before pointing them out at all, because I don’t suppose many other readers would notice or care. But they bothered me.

A more fundamental problem to me was the book’s hero David. David is a beautiful young man, who seems to cry a lot. He occasionally puts up a plucky resistance to his captors, but it’s a very ineffectual resistance which only seems to emphasise that he’s a traditional spirited heroine. I call him a heroine advisedly because he’s too passive to be a hero. He’s the cause of action in other people, but not a force in his own right. Having said that he causes other people to act, this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if he wasn’t so damn stupid. Other characters praise him for his compassion, but it’s a compassion mixed with blind irrationality and a tendency to nag people who know better to do things which they know are suicidal, but can’t resist doing to please him:

‘But why can’t you rescue everyone? I know you’ve explained that you can’t do this too often without risking the entire future of the white-slave underground railroad you’ve painstakingly built up over years. But why? I’m not going unless you rescue everyone. Oh dear, the attempt to rescue everyone has resulted in them all being killed? Never mind dear, you mustn’t blame yourself.’

I was waiting with baited breath for Richard to look up and say what I was thinking, which was ‘no, David, I blame you,’ but sadly this didn’t happen. David gets to demonstrate his loveliness by comforting Richard instead.

I wish I could say it was just one incident, but David’s inexplicable whining carries on throughout. He claims to be depressed because there’s nothing for him to do to help Richard. So Richard arranges to give him a job appropriate to his skills and interests. Whereupon David throws a strop and claims Richard doesn’t care about him. Huh?

By the end of the book Richard is claiming it’s too dangerous to use a certain disguise too often, and David is still going ‘but why can’t you use it?’ Fortunately Richard has learned better than to actually listen to him any more, or I would fear for Richard’s life expectancy beyond the end of the book.

This is not a flaw in the author’s conception, because Stephie Woods gives David a perfectly convincing backstory which does explain why he is so emotionally needy and messed up. It’s just a matter of what I like and don’t like in a character. Reading other reviews I see that many other people have fallen in love with David for his vulnerability and empathy. If I could have done that myself, I would have enjoyed the book much more.

A second place where the characters got in my way of complete enjoyment was in the subplot with Suzanna and the pirate captain Malik. I honestly have no idea at all how Suzanna could delude herself that being a pirate’s bedslave equalled achieving perfect freedom. But mention of the subplot reminds me of the many things I did enjoy in the book – the slave smuggling ring, the action-adventure plot and the luxurious, sensual journey into Egypt, where David’s ingénue-like delight in everything he was seeing made him for once a pleasure to be with.

If you don’t mind your men passive, weepy and irrational, then you will love this. If you do mind it, you may very well still enjoy the book for its other fine qualities. It’s worth a try, at least!

Buy the Book: Phaze

3 Responses

  1. I love this type of setting. It reminds me of the early work of Bertrice Small – “The Kadin” and “Love Wild and Free”. It sounds like it would make a fun movie. But when you quoted the paragraph below, I went, “huh?”

    ‘But why can’t you rescue everyone? I know you’ve explained that you can’t do this too often without risking the entire future of the white-slave underground railroad you’ve painstakingly built up over years. But why? I’m not going unless you rescue everyone. Oh dear, the attempt to rescue everyone has resulted in them all being killed? Never mind dear, you mustn’t blame yourself.’

    I thought at first you were making it up.
    I’ll probably get the book anyway. As you said, the setting is unusual and if the reason behind our somewhat overwrought David makes sense, then I can buy his personality.
    Still, I wish David was more like Maureen O’Hara’s character in “The Black Swan”. Now there was a heroine with whom I’d fight side by side.

  2. It would make a great movie. I enjoyed it a lot despite my increasing desire that David could die so that Charteris could shack up with Winstanley instead. I really liked him!

    Oh, but that’s not a quote, btw! That’s me summarizing quite a bit of the plot of the middle of the book in one handy paragraph. I’d better go back and make that plainer! Thanks :)

  3. Ah! Thank goodness that wasn’t a real paragraph!

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