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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arabian Nights

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Yes, Innocent In The Sheikh's Harem by Marguerite Kaye is a very sensational title.  It conjures up all sorts of images, most of them not necessarily "good."  Although, technically, the title fits.  Our heroine is an innocent, and she does find herself living in a sheikh's harem.  But it's not what you think.....

Lady Celia Cleveden is the eldest of five daughters, her father a British diplomat.  Sadly, this doesn't make her a good catch.  She's not a beauty like her younger sister Cassandra.  While she is intelligent, calm, practical and forthright, she's not a woman that inspires passion.  So her father does what all good 19th century fathers do - he marries her off to a junior diplomat as a way to expand his influence.  And George takes Celia's hand because he'd be a fool, politically speaking, not to.  Besides, she's a hell of a hostess.  The perfect diplomat's wife.  Which is why, even though everybody thinks he's mad, George insists she travel with him to Arabia to secure access to a valuable shipping port.  For her part, Celia is all for it.  Our girl has an adventurous, curious spirit and the idea of exploring this mysterious part of the world excites her.

Of course it all slides south rather quickly.  After bandits attack, George ends up dead.  Celia is rescued from certain death (and worse) by Sheikh Ramiz al-Muhanna.  Wanting to size up the Englishman he was set to meet with, Ramiz was following (OK, spying) on the traveling party from a distance.  He's shocked to discover the man brought his wife.  But he quickly learns all he needs to know about Celia.  Her husband may be an idiot coward, but this woman most certainly is not.  After he rescues her, he doesn't have much of a choice.  He can't take her back to Cairo, as the attack on these visiting dignitaries was a message for him.  He needs to get home and sort things out with his war-hungry, squabbling neighbors.

Celia is naturally out of sorts.  She's grateful for Ramiz's rescue, but she's totally out of her depth.  He's taking her back to his palace, and then when she jumps to all the wrong conclusions, he tweaks her nose about staying in his harem (in reality, his harem is empty and nowhere near a bordello that the West thinks all harems are).  However she's also smart enough to see the writing on the wall.  If Ramiz wanted her dead, he would have left her to fend for herself.  Or he wouldn't have intervened in the attack at all.  She's sad about George, but it was no great love match.  They hadn't even consummated their union.  Three months married and she was never really a wife.  She was hoping for love in time, but his death makes her realize the cold, hard truth.  He didn't want a wife.  He saddled himself to her to further his career.  Is she really so unattractive that not even her husband wanted her?

What I loved about this story was the excellent sense of place and the type of characters Kaye populates this world with.  For readers who complain that "setting" has become nothing more than window dressing or wallpaper in historical romances - this is your book.  Kaye's depiction of Arabia is lush, hypnotic and sensual.  It's easy to understand how Celia is brought under it's spell, how her senses come alive in a world so unlike, yet surprisingly similar in some ways, to her native England.  It's almost like a fairytale.

For his part, Ramiz became the sheikh after his war-mongering brother was killed.  He's of the school of thought that diplomacy is the way to go, although convincing his old guard neighbors of this is proving difficult.  He's feeling the pressure to take a wife, but the idea of marrying one of the area princesses just to secure an alliance?  He's not wild about the idea.  Plus, he's frankly too busy to deal with females right now.  That is until he sets eyes on Celia.  He knows he should stay away from her, but he can't.  He takes one look at her, and immediately knows her husband was the stupidest man alive.  To show this woman pleasure?  Ahhh, how can he resist?

I rarely talk about sex when writing reviews, but in this case?  I think it's worth mentioning.  Harlequin Historicals, for a long time, lived in a PG-rated world.  In recent years, I'd say some of them have crept into PG-13 territory.  But this story?  Probably the hottest HH title I've ever read.  OK, so I haven't read the entire backlist of the line, but seriously - hot stuff.  I suspect it's a by-product of Kaye writing several short stories for the spicier Undone line, and that naturally bleeds over into this, her first full-length novel.  When the couple partakes in an activity named after a double-digit number?  Um, yeah.  This ain't your mama's Harlequin Historical title.  Just sayin'.

When it's all said and done, what really worked for me, besides the evocative backdrop, were the characters themselves.  I loved that Ramiz acted like an autocratic sheikh at times, but he wasn't an asshole.  I loved that Celia behaved like one would think someone with her diplomatic background would behave.  I also loved that she wasn't prone to hysterics, but she also wasn't above feeling uncertain, or even a little scared at times when the situation called for it.  The ending did feel a little abrupt to me, but I loved the fact that the hero ends up realizing the error of his own ways, without the aid of a well-meaning third party, BFF, or whomever to show him the light.

I know some readers are never going to go out on that sheikh limb no matter what anyone says, but this historical has so much of what some readers seem to be clamoring for at the moment.  Like Celia, I found myself falling more than a bit in love with this world.  I can't wait to read the next book, The Governess And The Sheik. 

Final Grade = B


Victoria Janssen said...

This sounds like an interesting take on the trope.

A Library Girl said...

I usually avoid books with "sheikh" in the title - I don't think I've ever actually read any, so it's more out of preconceived notions and prejudices than because I've been burned by such books in the past. This sounds pretty good, though, so if I see it next time I go shopping I think I'll get it and have it be my very first "sheikh" book.

Wendy said...

Victoria: If there is such a thing as an erotic romance HH - this might be it. But honestly what stuck out for me the most was the setting. I really thought the author did a lovely job with the details.

Library Girl: I think the stigma is that sheikh is shorthand for "raging Alpha asshole." Which is why the trope was never one that totally flipped my switch. But here I think the author hits a nice balance. I genuinely liked both of these characters.

little alys said...

I'm sold. Will get and read soon. :D

P.S. My word verification was spingod. ahahahah.

A Library Girl said...

@Wendy - Ah yes, "raging Alpha asshole" is the phrase I was looking for. If I had discovered sheikh books when I was a teen, I probably would have devoured them, but I can't take those types of heroes anymore.

Hannah said...

I'm really looking forward to reading this! I also have the novella The Sheikh's Impetuous Love-Slave which I think is in the same series. I have read several romances featuring sheikhs though all were contemporaries. My favorites were Susan Mallery's books for Special Edition especially The Sheikh's Christmas Bride.

FD said...

Having been horribly, horribly burned by E. M. Hull's The Sheik as an 11 year old, (yes WTF my junior school (ages 7-11) library was doing with a copy I will never know) I mostly avoid sheik stories like the plague. Even at that age the ethnocentrism and the misogyny were repellent.

Having tried a few Harlequin sheik stories over the years, I've found them to generally follow in the same tradition - sheik as code for asinine male lead and whitewashed to boot. However, a friend told me the author mentioned Hester Stanhope in the foreword, and added that she'd quite enjoyed it so I took a chance on it.

I thought it was a little shallow, and the secondary characters were tiresomely cliche, and the sequel bait sister made me wince. However, it incorporated a genuine sympathy for the leads with their different societal viewpoints and some very nice prose and well woven history / faction tidbits. Overall I approved. (My reaction might be coloured by awareness of some of the real life romances though.)
I can't say I thought the love scenes were explicitly sexual, so much as sensual, and that they deliberately reflected the process of exploration of both of the leads' wishes / desires that occurred throughout the book. I did feel a little uncomfortable with that, being aware of the tendency in the genre towards appropriation of 'the other' to stand in for exotic/sensual, the almost fetishisation thing. However, as they were both exploring, it squeaked by for me, although other people might well be more sensitive to it than I was.

I'd compare it to Catherine Asaro's The Veiled Web in terms of sympathy for the protags and senstitive treatment of inter-religious romance, while being aware that(as befitted the pagecount I suspect) it takes some dicey subjects and dances rather lightly, but respectfully, over them.
I look forward to more from the author.

Jill Sorenson said...

Great review! I love the cover, too. A sheikh who is actually dark. Sign me UP.

Wendy said...

Alys: I thought the book had a very "swept away" feel to it. I happily took the trip :)

Library Girl: My tolerance is low, but I like those sorts of heroes every now and then to flip my "guilty pleasure" switch. Also, I LOVE a good grovel scene.

Hannah: I've read the Undone story, and I liked it. I find that Kaye works well within that VERY short format.

FD: I've read other reviews with thoughts similar to yours, and I can definitely see those points clearly....uh, after the fact. At the time of my initial reading, I really got sucked in. I suspect because the setting was so well done - and also because the protags clicked so well for me. Not sure why this is? Probably Kaye's "style" clicking for me? A mystery to ponder for later :)

Jill: I really liked it! Kaye does such a nice job with her settings.

Lynn Spencer said...

I have this one on the TBR, but may have to bump it up the pile. It sounds good!

I agree with you on HH books being pretty PG/PG-13 for the most part. However, they do have some hotter ones mixed in there. I remember stumbling across a few way back in the backlist when I was in high school.

FD said...

Wendy, oh I know what you mean - I suspect that your reading experience might have been a little more seamless, but most of the serious thought didn't happen till after I'd finished it. Mostly, while reading, I was subliminally going, oh god, she's not going to go there? and then hey, she sorta pulled that off. I suspect my expressions might have been entertaining. ;) Most importantly, I didn't stop reading.

Marguerite Kaye said...

I've been lurking, I admit it.

It's funny, but I didn't really know anything about the whole romancing the desert trope at all until I wrote this book - I certainly didn't think about sheikh's as Alpha assholes with too much attitude and I'm glad I didn't because it would have frozen my keyboard. I just set out to write the kind of sheikh book I'd like to read in the kind of desert that I fell in love with after reading about Lady Hester Stanhope. I guess the hot sands made my writing a bit hotter than I'd realised too. Now I wish I hadn't given my mum a copy!

I'm biting my nails wondering what readers will make of the next one now (The Governess and the Sheikh), what with the hammam baths scene and all!


nath said...

Great review, Wendy!! Really makes me want to read it now!! :) Maybe it'll pull me off from my reading slump?