With the Middle East in conflagration, Miss Bates’s taste for the desert sheikh romance is less and less palatable, requiring a greater and greater suspension of disbelief. If there’s a sheikh romance that engages and convinces, it’d be Maisey Yates’s. (Miss Bates’ loved last year’s Pretender To the Throne, though it was set in a fictional Greek island kingdom. Settings, in the HP romance, are interchangeable. The circum-Mediterranean world suffices, with its images of heat, passion, and enough foreign-ness to satisfy the safe-seeking sensibilities of HP readers.) In To Defy A Sheikh, Yates sets up a fascinating premise: hero and heroine meet after sixteen years under unusual circumstances. The heroine, Samarah Al-Azem, former princess of Jahar, attempts to murder Sheikh Ferran Bashar of Khadra, her childhood playmate. He is the reason for her father’s execution, the father who destroyed Ferran’s family … though, as revealed in the course of the romance, her and Ferran’s family were embroiled in the most sordid of affairs, with infidelity and control and violence as their causes and outcomes. Not all parties were guilty; the ones who were dealt the hardest blows are the innocents, the children, Ferran and Samarah. As adults, Ferran is tormented by guilt and Samarah burns with revenge.
In the fictional kingdom of Khadra, Samarah, who survives in exile and poverty, stalks her prey, Sheikh Ferran. Living as a street urchin in the city around Ferran’s palace, she also manages to train in martial arts, honing herself into a killing machine. The opening scene is tense, fascinating, and suspenseful; witness the moment Samarah confronts Ferran outside his bedroom: “She took a deep breath and waited for the door to open. It did, a sliver of light sliding across the high-gloss marble floor. She could see his reflection in it. Broad, tall. Alone. Perfect.” How did she evade palace security? Who knows? Who cares, thought Miss Bates, this is cool. The ensuing fight scene delivers on the initial mystery and wonder of Ferran’s appearance. Ferran’s size and training (these two are super-fit, super-athletes, the gym an outlet for their frustrated desires and emotions) defeat Samarah, but only after she makes him hurt. Miss Bates was mesmerised … and then, she wasn’t. Once Samarah is “defeated” in combat, Ferran’s guilt over the dishonourable way he destroyed her father (in an act of vigilante justice, Ferran has reason to feel guilty), no matter how deserved Samarah’s father’s punishment, drives him to atone for what he did by offering her a palace and position with marriage. Though he’s all about atonement and doing what’s best for Samarah, he doesn’t leave her a choice about the marriage proposal.
Ferran’s offer allows us to experience Samarah’s internal changes of heart: firstly, she accepts his offer for the opportunity to exact her revenge later (like Hamlet’s catching the king in “the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed” instead of killing him while he prays); then, as she gets to know Ferran’s tormented soul, she sees things from his perspective. She justifies his actions; she likes him. She cares for him and, finally, after his magical sexual prowess has her seeing stars, she realizes she loves him. Samarah is a rounded character: she’s not terribly likeable, with her pirouettes and spins of combat, but her trajectory makes sense. Ferran is a truncated character: his “torment,” though legitimate, results in three near-laughable avowals: “He didn’t believe in emotion. Only right and wrong. Only justice” and “He was not a slave to his body. He was not a slave to desire. He was a slave to nothing. He was ice” and “The truth of the matter was, he’d given up women and sex that day his family had been killed.” Yates wants a Ferran who’s tormented and robotic in his emotionlessness. This is ambitious and Miss Bates applauds it, but it didn’t work. The result is a Ferran who’s cruel: after he “takes” (gosh, how Miss Bates HATES that word in this context) Samarah’s virginity (taking all her free will in a blink), he immediately rises from the bed, dresses silently, and leaves … to leave her alone, because it’s better for her. How’s it better, buddy? A woman alone and vulnerable, all Samarah yearns for after her mind-blowing, orgasmic experience, is her lover to hold her. He doesn’t speak to her for days … just goes off and broods guiltily. Thus, the promise of that great, opening action scene (“Crouching Panther, Hidden Viper”, according to the descriptors for hero and heroine) lapses into Ferran and Samarah’s inner torment, anger, etc. … and nothing happens, except for the stellar sex that ensures the heroine’s heart being given over to the hero.
Well, dear readers, this is Maisey Yates and Miss Bates loves her. Yates’s writing is natural; it exhibits such ease. She tackled a lot, but didn’t captivate Miss Bates this time. Firstly, the idea of the “sins of the fathers” being “visited on the children” is a viable conflict trope for a romance; if Shakespeare could do it, the romance genre can do it better because HEA! Secondly, unique to the awesomeness of the HP universe is the ability, in their stellar incarnations, to bridge believability with the fantastical: emotions are real; setting, plot, backstories can be as out there as a writer chooses. But if these two elements jar in any way for the reader, then the HP is risible. Miss Bates appreciated, however, how tongue-in-cheek self-conscious Yates was about her romance’s Orientalism: with some great exchanges between the protagonists like, “What do you think this is, the Arabian Nights?” The celibacy thing, on the other hand, um, nope. Most unconvincing: was it Ferran’s way of punishing himself? Practising austerity to deprive himself of pleasure to assuage his guilt? Um, Ferran could have used a little public confession: besides it looks like his crime wasn’t executing her father, but how he was executed. Finally, Miss Bates would say that Yates suffered from a stunted romance narrative. Her characters had rich and intriguing backstories: their motivations were compelling; their execution (hee hee) fell flat. They became mouthpieces of their backstories and, as a result, lacked growth, especially Ferran. Maisey Yates’s To Defy A Sheikh offers only “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Maisey Yates’s To Defy A Sheikh was published by Harlequin Books and released on October 21st of 2014. It is available in the usual formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.