This is it, you guys. I’ve found the One True Alpha. All the rest of you posers can go home. Nothing like vintage alpha for a bit of nostalgia, and at 1919, The Sheik is considered by some the first romance novel ever. Sometimes, the original actually is the
best worst. NOTHING will ever be as terrible or as hilarious as this book. Hence the reason I read the entire thing with a gigantic smile on my face. IT WAS SO AWESOME. Except for…well, we’ll get to that.
A bit of background. Diana Mayo, haughty English noblewoman, is preparing to go on tour in colonial Algiers by herself, a plan that causes her relatives consternation and inconvenience. Ahmed Ben Hassan is a desert chieftain with ISSUES, bolded and neon and blinking repeatedly. Desert chieftain kidnaps English noblewoman, heavily implied non-con follows, English noblewoman falls in love with desert chieftain. Happily ever after, I presume?
Confession time: the rape didn’t bother me that much. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading eighteenth century literature and old adventure novels in which rape is always on the verge of happening (and on the off chance it does happen, the victim always dies so that the male love interest doesn’t have to marry a “sullied” woman), so I’m fairly used to rapey melodrama. Mostly, I was impressed that Diana made it to the end of the book alive. Terribly low bar, I know, but I’ve learned not to expect much from this sort of novel. I just couldn’t take it seriously; it was too over the top.
“Has love never even made you merciful?” He glanced up at her with a harsh laugh, and shook his head. “Love? Connais pas! Yes, I do,” he added with swift mockery, “I love my horses.”
(They’re speaking French because they’re in colonial Algiers.) Honestly, and it hurts to admit this, but I kind of liked Ahmed, in a love to hate, popcorn-snarfing, what-will-he-do-next way. I know I compared it to Fifty Shades of Grey on my Twitter, but the reading experiences were vastly different. Fifty Shades of Grey disturbed me because–under the outrageous wealth and chiseled abs endlessly described (or whatever romance novel adjective goes here)–Christian Grey is skin-crawlingly real. Ahmed Ben Hassan is pure fantasy. Unhealthy fantasy, to be sure, but still hilarious enough to be lovably terrible.
Second difference: The prose was better. The author doesn’t waste time and, aside from purplish lapses (and isn’t that part of the fun?), keeps the story moving. In other words, no FSOG-esque consumer porn to be found here. However, there was smoking porn. Lots of smoking porn. The only things blacker than these people’s hearts are their lungs.
He gave an order and waited, his hands thrust into the folds of his waist-cloth and his teeth clenched on a cigarette that he had forgotten to light.
Diana lit a cigarette slowly, and swung round on her chair with a hard laugh.
And these are only two examples. My kindle app reports that there are 49 instances of the word “cigarette” in this 170-ish page book.
In addition to smoking more than all of the characters on Downton Abbey combined, Diana is pretty badass for a romance novel heroine. While Ahmed is off trolling everyone in the desert, Diana smashes the patriarchy with the aid of riding breeches, ivory pistols, and copious amounts of attitude. At least in the first half. Then she gets Stockholm Syndrome, yay! I would have found her more engaging if she hadn’t been…well…just a little bit racist. Actually, make that a lot racist.
First of all, I never want to hear the word “Oriental” again.
Until I read this book, I wasn’t quite sure why it was a racist word. I simply thought it was a dated term that deserved to be replaced. However, my view didn’t account for its context in colonial literature. Whenever colonial writers used the word “Oriental,” it always seemed to go in sentences like this: “WHY are Orientals so LAAAAZYYYY?” And other delightful musings. And these:
He had relied on the Western tendencies that prompted him to carry off the difficult situation, but his ingrained Orientalism had broken through the superficial veneer.
And another one.
Eyes were untrustworthy evidences of character in an Oriental, for they usually wavered under a European’s.
As if all that’s not unsettling enough, this book was a bestseller. One of the many reasons I’ve stopped paying attention when people complain how awful modern life is. At least we don’t read books like this anymore…Right? Right?
Sometimes, books fail to shock when they mean to, and shock when they don’t.