Trapped in his life as a pleasure slave, Noori serves each master who passes through the amir’s realm. No one sees beyond the slave’s body—no one bothers to look—until the sheikh of a desert tribe discovers the once-free, educated man could be an asset to his business. Noori’s life is turned upside down as the sheikh takes him to his new home, where he will discover new challenges, new people, the possibility of freedom, and the irresistible lure of love.
One of Dreamspinner’s Timeless Dreams category which they describe as: “While reaction to same-sex relationships throughout time and across cultures has not always been positive, these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma.”
Review by Vashtan (warning – plot spoilers)
Okay, this review was two weeks in the making. When I got the list of titles to be reviewed, I was quite excited. Finally one of those fabled “sheikh stories” that I‘ve heard people talk about! I haven’t read a single one of them in my life, so, to me, that was like dipping my toes into something new and exciting. I read the text in one day, mostly morbidly fascinated from page one.
This is not a kind review, but honestly, this book deserves very little kindness. I don’t actually enjoy ripping books apart, I am a reviewer because I love reading and I adore finding a good book in unexpected places and getting to know authors that I haven’t read before to add to my “authors to buy” list.
I was glad that this book is almost ahistorical, so I thought I could ignore it and move on, forgetting I ever read it, but reading a few other reviews on Speak Its Name, I realized that just because it has next to no discernible setting and is a punch to the face of any intelligent reader, that doesn’t mean it’s not meant as historical. So I will treat it like that. Good things first: the cover is fine (no poser cover, no soft-porn male torso), and the style isn’t offensively bad, for the most part.
This is a short, 158 page story about Noori, a former pleasure slave, who is bought by the eponymous sheik. He lives with the sheikh as his “trusted servant” and they sleep in the same bed for many months. Noori is trained as a pleasure slave, and has been badly traumatized by it. The sheikh is the first man he really wants, but also the first man that doesn’t touch him. To those readers who like a lot of sex with their pleasure slaves, the only sex scene is on the last few pages, and it was… really fairly purple. If that was the pay-off for the other 155 pages of drivel, it didn’t work for me. The sheikh and Noori sleep in the same bed, cuddling a little, but nothing happens. You could think they are celibate nuns rather than men. Noori desires his master, but is too timid to do anything about it, so what we get is this simpering, wide-eyed slave adoring the sheikh for a long time.
Noori is as feminine as you can make a character. “Simpering doormat” is almost too gentle a description. For those of you looking for characters who actually have guts or balls, trauma or not, this is not the story for you.
The story-building is weak, to say the least. Most of the time is spent with Noori talking to people about how great and fearless and wonderful and gorgeous and tragic the sheikh is (show me, please, rather than tell me, dear author!), and the sheikh, on camera, so to speak, is pretty terse and “grunts” a lot. Sexy! Noori plays with the sheikh’s sweet cute pretty clever children (of two conveniently tragically deceased wives), and talks to the sheikh’s mother about how much the sheikh needs another person in his life. Yes, we can see that Noori’s going to make him a good wife; gets along well with the “mother-in-law” and the children love him too. Very convenient, so the happy ending is set. At some point, Noori’s former, dastardly owner shows up and grabs Noori and one of the children. Noori, despite being wounded, escapes (how exactly remains a mystery), robbing the sheikh of the opportunity to a good action scene where we can finally see him as a glorious leader of men that the author tells us he is.
Then, after the rescue, there’s some “romance” and the purple-prosed sex scene.
So much for the story. Let’s look at the research.
It must be here somewhere.
I’m pretty sure I saw some kind of setting.
Oh, right. Desert. Bedouins. It’s on the cover, right?
What comes to mind when thinking Bedouins? Yes, they tend to be Muslims. There are certain customs in the desert, think hospitality (not that anybody cares, mind you). The only thing properly “Bedouin” about the cast is that they wear flowy robes. Let’s look at the way Spencer shows us her research. (Let’s ignore the whole thing about male sex toy slaves being traded). What galled me that the two sexes, males and females, interact like in the Western World. No segregation, women seem to be very emancipated, and dating behaviour looks very western. Okay, I thought, so it’s not current-day, because reality looks a bit different in Saudi Arabia.
I knew I was in for a ride when the book opens with the sheikh getting drunk on wine (!). I’m not sure how many Muslims the author knows, but all but one of my Muslim friends (in current-day Europe), don’t drink. And the one I know is a non-practising Muslim. Okay, I thought, our sheikh is obviously an apostate. That fits with him not praying on
camera and not following the tenets of his own faith throughout the book. It could have been an interesting conflict, apart from the fact that a sheikh (as a leader of his men) would have to answer some hard questions from his followers if he’s so obviously non-Muslim. Not so.
In this book, everybody loves the sheikh, he can do whatever he wants,
and that includes taking a male consort (after all, he already fathered two children), so that’s pretty much OKHOMO. There is a mention later of that he’s at odds with the Imam, but nothing much is made of the conflict. It’s introduced at a convenient time, but not resolved or used to further the story.
There is no sense of culture, history, or setting. Noori, being pale, is “from the land beyond the northern sea”:
“His people were quite fair, with lighter hair, as well. His was a dark blond, near the color of the sand of this desert land, and his blue eyes were definitely exotic. He was also slighter than the people here, with finer bones and features that ironically served him well as a pleasure slave.”
If we place the novel in Saudi Arabia, I’m not sure about what “northern sea” we are talking about. The Mediterranean? That would make him European. Noori (which, we learn, is his real name) is a Persian/Turkish name as far as I know. There are blond Turks/Persians, but there is a “northern sea” missing between there and Saudi Arabia.
This is just one instance of the author being incredibly vague about everything regarding setting and culture, which tells me she couldn’t be bothered doing more than adapting the nice flowy robes. I’m all for good visuals, but this is simply not enough for me.
Noori spends a lot of time about obsessing about upsetting the sheikh:
“Grunting again, the sheikh looked back down at his papers after a dismissive twitch of his hand. Noori winced. The man did not want to be bothered, which was surely his master’s intention, thereby sending this interesting choice of distraction. His master would be very displeased that Noori had failed to keep the sheikh’s attention.”
“Noori dared to glance at the sheikh. Lowering his eyes again, he answered, “In my homeland above the northern sea, Master, I was trained as any free man’s male child would be. I studied numbers and words and sciences. After my father died, I was sold to cover his debts. Amir Qutaibah bought me, and his harem master dictated my education in the finer arts of art, dance, and pleasure.”
The constant “master” this, “master” that, and the melodramatic angsting over things like the twitch of an eyebrow galled the character for me. Noori has no spine, not a molecule of testosterone, and is a complete submissive doormat without any hopes or aspirations beyond getting finally fucked by the sheikh. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about him. If he was part of the harem, he would be castrated, so that maybe accounts for the lack of “balls”, but the author never mentions that, so I assume she ignored the facts of life for a male member of a harem.
Now, the time. The “feel” of the story was historical at the start. When we learn that the sheikh wears glasses (I assume that’s the “flaw” that’s meant to make him a two-dimensional character), I put this post 1200s, as that’s when we learn of spectacles. Give or take a few years for the Arab world. I read it with that in mind. Then, the sheikh says:
“I have not decided your duties,” the sheikh said shortly, falling silent for a long moment before adding, “I do not believe in forcing someone to warm my bed,” he said gruffly. “It is … counterproductive.” (page 37)
Which catapulted me right back into post 1950ies – the online etymological dictionary places “counter-productive” in 1959, so a good guess.
Now, there is a lot of archaic words being used, too, or archaic turns of phrase. But there’s nothing that we’d expect from a speaker of Arabic or a Muslim (no mention of Allah or the Prophet, for example), and the author does a pretty poor job making me believe those people speak Arabic, which is usually really poetic.
To confuse me more, there’s mentioning of a place called Meda’in Saleh, which is an archaeological site in current-day Saudi Arabia, which is a site dating from Late Antiquity, but apparently Bedouins lived there, so the time could be whenever. And its is “whenever”, and we’re not supposed to care and we’re not given anything to work with.
There’s one scene where the our demure little slaveling suggests seducing the Imam to give the sheikh a political advantage. That’s the scene I’ve chosen to give you an idea of the characters and writing:
“The Imam and I do not see eye to eye,” he [the sheikh] grumbled. Noori nodded, waiting for him to continue. Shahin narrowed his eyes as he saw Noori listening expectantly. He huffed aloud. “The Imam and I do not agree on a particular matter,” he specified. “And he will not let it rest.”
“What matter is that, my lord? Might I be of service to help change his views?” Noori offered timidly, yet automatically.
Shahin snorted, shaking his head. “His mind will not be turned, not on this matter,” he said firmly. “It is of little consequence. I let him bait me.” His nose wrinkled in displeasure.
“Are you certain I might not offer my services? I was often used as an … incentive … when the amir’s deals were not quite guaranteed.”
Turning his chin sharply, Shahin’s eyes flashed. “Incentive? Like when he—” His words cut off, and he shook his head. “No. I will not tolerate anyone being used in such a manner.”
“But I was trained to do this,” Noori tried to convince him. “It is nothing more than a mere business deal to me. I shall do it if you ask it of me, my lord.”
“I will not, and neither will any other!” Shahin snapped vehemently, sitting up, looking truly affronted. “I will not allow it.”
“You do not understand, my lord. I want to do this for you. I want to make your life easier,” Noori argued.
Lips pressing together in annoyance, Shahin glowered at Noori for a long moment, obviously choosing his words carefully. “I … appreciate … your devotion, but I will never ask that of you. Never,” he growled. “You are not a mere commodity to be plundered. No human is.”
“What if I insist on doing it? Even if you do not ask it of me?” Noori’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he found himself leaning closer to press his point.
Shahin gritted his teeth, practically in Noori’s face. “Then I will have you removed from the situation bodily,” he rasped. “I will not accept such services from any person; it is not a matter of loyalty! It is a matter of what is right, what is decent.”
“What if I desire it?” Noori’s voice dropped to a low, devious tone.
Stunned into silence, Shahin stared at him.
Noori smiled as he realized he might have found a way to help the sheikh without the other man being able to stop it. “I am a loyal servant to you, my lord. I am faithful to you. I wish to see your tribe grow and prosper.”
Shahin frowned deeply, looking quite put out. Noori stared at him, forgetting that he was merely a servant in thrall of a great lord. “Seducing the Imam will not help matters,” Shahin finally muttered, giving in and revealing more information. “He wishes to bend me to his will, and I shall not be tempered in this matter.”
“What is his will?” Noori asked, watching Shahin’s face for any clues.
That face shuttered and Shahin’s eyes darkened, going blank. “He wants my attendance at worship,” he muttered.
Noori closed his hand around Shahin’s forearm. “No man should be able to dictate to another whom he shall worship.”
Shahin sighed, shoulders slumping. “I still honor the heavens, in my own way,” he said quietly, eyes far away.
“I have heard you pray,” Noori admitted softly, “and my heart cries out for your loss.”
Shahin’s shoulders stiffened a bit, but just as quickly he relaxed back against the palm tree. They sat in silence for long minutes. Finally the sheikh spoke. “I forbid you to proposition the Imam,” he rasped.
Blue eyes shot up to meet black ones. “I will abide by your wishes, my lord, but I do not know why you forbid this.”
Shahin stood abruptly, folding his arms. When he looked at Noori, his face was pinched. “The Imam is my father’s brother,” he muttered.
“Then he must understand your … reluctance … to worship.” Noori stood and followed him, standing so close he could feel Shahin’s heat radiating through the wet fabric of his own clothes.
“How do you know of it?” the sheikh rasped.
Noori dipped his head. “I apologize for mentioning it, my lord.” He avoided answering the question directly. “A friend told me so that I might better understand how to serve you.” (page 87-89)
Don’t worry, the man doesn’t have throat cancer, he just “rasps” a lot. I assume that’s meant to be sexy. It can get damned dry in a desert.
So. If you like your Muslims talking casually about doing their own thing, swilling wine, your slaves little submissive doormats, your setting and time evenly stretched over the last 800 years or so, with plenty of angsty melodrama with zero emotional impact, if you like your sheikhs worshipped by everybody on very little merit, and your pleasure slaves effeminate and gormless, go for it. But this wasn’t for me.