When Miss Bates started reading Hewitt’s Forced Bride Of Alazar, she was not pleased. Alazar‘s title, premise, and set-up left much to be desired, but HPs are Miss Bates reading-snack of choice, she loves Hewitt, and she persisted. There isn’t much to recommend Alazar‘s opening. Johara Behar’s arranged marriage to Malik al Bahjat was dissolved when Malik’s long-lost love, secret baby, and kidnapped older brother showed up. For a few days, Johara enjoys the possibility of steering her life her way. To date, she’s lived quietly in Provence with her mother. She reads, tends her garden, and creates plant-based cures for a variety of ailments. Hewitt’s Johara is a classic introvert. Her hopes and dreams of a free life are shattered, however, when her father informs her that the broken engagement has been reinstated with the new Sultan, the long-lost brother Azim. You’re probably thinking, this is standard HP fare, what got Miss Bates’s goat? Patience, dear reader.
Having never received it from her mother, Johara craves her father’s love. She begs him to release her from the “new” arrangement, but Arif shows his true colours. Johara is only a tool in her father’s lust for power and cultivation of the new sultan. Johara travels to the Sultanate of Alazar to meet her austere, cold fiancé. Azim is tall, dark, handsome, scarred, and a tyrant. He declares they are to marry next week, rejects Johara’s pleas to get to know each other, and informs her she is to live in the harem. Miss Bates thought she could never, never find any liking for this hero. Things didn’t look good at all.
Devastated by her father’s betrayal and horrified by a future with Azim, Johara runs away to Paris, where she turns into a TSTL heroine. She accepts a “waitressing” position with a sleazy character in the midst of the Quartier Latin and finds herself in the middle of a sexual slavery ring … until Azim shows up, in the nick of time, to rescue her. What choice does our TSTL heroine have but to surrender to her matrimonial fate? She and Azim marry, travel to his Neapolitan estate, and from there, back to Alazar for the religious one. At this point, Miss Bates was a breath away from DNF-ing Hewitt’s romance. Miss Bates wonders how many HP-readers carry on with a possible DNF because of the category’s brevity? She suspects, as she did for Alazar, that many of us think, “What the heck? I’m already at 40%, and I only have another 45 minutes to finish it … ” Finish it she did, dear reader, and dammit, Hewitt turned this cringe-worthy mess into a winner.
How does Hewitt bring The Forced Bride back from the brink of DNF-hood? As she always does, by slowing down the tropes. A peculiar statement, you might say to MissB. But she is convinced that the weakest romances gallop to the HEA, usually by making the love scenes uppermost in establishing the hero and heroine’s connection. The best romance writers, like Hewitt, do the opposite, doling out the love scenes sparingly and making them unique and organic to the couple.
Specifically, Hewitt makes her narrative about redeeming the HP conventions that so marred it to start. She does so in various ways. She establishes good witty “chin” for her heroine: “Johara glared at him, the lift of her chin now seeming stubborn rather than courageous, and entirely aggravating.” In this of many Johara-Azim confrontations, Hewitt humorously makes Johara go from someone Azim can occasionally indulge because she pretty and his wife to someone who will sock him one in the confrontational arena. Suddenly, he’s on much shakier ground. Hewitt also matures her heroine, wiping the TSTL slate clean with: “Perhaps as the wife of the Sultan she could carve out a life for herself, do good in the world.” Johara finds purpose in her role for herself, not as Azim’s arm-candy, but with the hope of serving others.
Lastly, Hewitt has Johara reach out to Azim, to try to understand him and make the best of their circumstances: ” ‘But now that we are married, I would like to get along with you, Azim. I would like us to be…friends, at least.’ ‘Friends?’ He repeated the word disbelievingly, everything inside him resisting such a suggestion. He didn’t have friends. ‘Why shouldn’t we?’ Johara pressed. ‘We’re married. We’re going to share our lives, have children one day, God willing. Wouldn’t it be better for both of us if we could actually like each other a little bit? Share with each other our concerns, our fears, our hopes…?’ ” At this point, Miss Bates could finally like and root for Johara. She was growing up and was learning to make the best of her life without compromising her integrity. Azim, of course, still needed a lot of work.
Another reason Miss Bates can’t quit Hewitt is that she sure can wield a metaphor. A writer in control of her material can keep Miss Bates reading, despite the tired old tropes, evident in this little gem: “Azim’s voice was the quiet snick of a drawn blade.” It captures Azim’s ability for finality, for the declarative, that so annoy Johara. But Hewitt also starts the slow journey to his alpha-bad redemption with a great line establishing his decency with humorous, internal truth-telling: “He knew he was being overbearing and unreasonable, but he’d been pushed into it by her insouciant indifference.” Miss Bates guffawed! Hewitt then deepened Azim, showed woundedness and vulnerability, which he exposes only to Johara, because of how she reaches out to him in friendship: “She’d seen him in pain and she hadn’t thought he was weak. The realisation was like missing a step in a staircase, jolting him, opening him to other, unsettling possibilities.” Another great metaphor, the stair-trip showing how Azim’s marriage to Johara and Johara’s gesture allow him to become more than the cold, stereotypical alpha-male he exhibits initially.
After Hewitt ensures Johara’s and Azim’s three-dimensionality, she builds a connection between them based on “knowing” the other outside the bedroom: “He had so convinced himself he wasn’t interested in getting to know her, didn’t need to know. Now he found he wanted to, not just for mere expediency’s sake but out of simple–and growing–interest in who she was.” The stuff of romance is made of being known at the deepest, most vulnerable levels of oneself. The love scenes, as Hewitt wisely shows in Azim and Johara’s relationship, can be a source both of making this possible, or pushing them apart.
Romance is about intimacy, not sexuality, the desire to be known by one other person in the deepest way possible and to know the other in the same way: ” … part of him knew he wanted to be known” and Johara’s beautiful admittance: “She wanted to be a partner. A love, a soul mate, his heart’s desire. The realisation bloomed and grew within her like the most fragrant and beautiful flower in any garden.” In the end, romance is about opening the self to the other, selflessly wanting the other to do the same, and giving to the other, putting them “above all others”. Hewitt illustrates this when Azim comes upon a much happier Johara, planting her medicinal herbs: ” ‘I am glad to see you so occupied.’ He was, fiercely so. He wanted her to make a life for herself here. He wanted, he realised, for her to be happy.” In the end, Hewitt betrays her narrative with a lame betrayal scene, but a necessary one for Azim to break through his emotional barriers (they are many and justified) to admit he loves Johara.
Hewitt’s Forced Bride Of Alazar is both flawed and utterly satisfying. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says it is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Kate Hewitt’s The Forced Bride Of Alazar is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in April 2016 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.