Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-8041-1963-5
Historical Romance, 2002
Oh, the author’s afterword in Black Lion’s Bride is so amusing. If I’m a happy, virtuous fangirl, I’ll tear up at Ms St John’s lovely “Muslims have a great culture, y’know, and oh, Sept 11 touches us all, we must pray that love and romance will save the day!” piece. But oh, I’m evil in that I snicker and think, “She’s probably trying to (a) cover her tracks in case she offends the Muslims and (b) cover her tracks in case she offends the moron readers who will call her a traitor for daring to write about a Muslim heroine marrying a Christian hero.”
But it’s so amusing nonetheless, because if you ask me, that piece of afterword needn’t matter at all. For all the heroine Zahirah’s abuse of “By Allah!” every other paragraph, the author downplays the issue of religion. Zahirah is a faithful Muslim who happens to oops, doesn’t pray (she only goes to the mosque – which I doubt is likely to be allowed in those days – to meet a co-conspirator), wanders off alone unaccompanied in a society that severely restricts the movement of women, has unhesitant sex with an infidel (the hero), and happily betrays her father and her lifelong acquaintances because the hero is, like, er, cute, wow. Wow.
Zahirah, daughter of the Old Man of the Mountains, is part of a tightly-knitted clan of assassins. Their mission? Send Zahirah to murder that infidel King Richard the Lionheart who is invading their lands. This is a Crusade-era romance, in case you haven’t caught on by now. Why a notoriously chauvinist tribe will send a woman to do an important job… hey, who’s asking? Not me, that’s for sure.
Zahirah attempts to infiltrate King Richard’s place after her initial “kill, kill, eeeek, so scary, must try (for Daddy), must try (for honor), kill, kill – oh no! I failed!” fiasco. She sets up a scenario where she plays the helpless Muslim innocent endangered by An Evil Nasty Male Pig (actually an accomplice), and our enlightened, women-respecting, infidel-headlopping knight Sebastian “Black Lion – Original Nickname, Isn’t It?” Montborne saves her and even ends up accidentally marrying her. Conversion, you ask? Who cares! This is a romance novel. The heroine sprouting “Allah!” every ten seconds is ample evidence that she’s a… a… Muslim? She has to be. I think.
Mind you, Zahirah does keep lying to Sebastian. She keeps trying to kill (ineptly) Richard. But her conscience is now torn, because… er, let me get a microscope and check. Hmm. I don’t know. All I know is she likes this infidel knight who kisses her so well and wham! Toss Allah, here comes the Christian manna of manhood!
Maybe it’s just me, but give me a woman who lies and betrays because she believes in a cause rather than a woman who lies and betrays while whining that she is a guilt-ridden monster. The former has convictions, the latter is a misguided weak-willed gnat with martyr aspirations. Just like Zahirah.
So in the end, Zahirah calls herself “Gilianne”, moves to England where love, peace, and enlightenment reign, and lives happily ever after with her handsome Christian knight. No more Allah.
Maybe Ms St John’s nicely written afterword is not so silly in retrospection after all. If she has actually shown that the Muslim has more culture than just some chess game (she pointed out the richness of the Middle-East culture in the afterword, but gee, I wouldn’t know that from this story), if she actually addresses the matter of religion (why make Zahirah sprout “Allah!” and remind me incessantly that she is Muslim when you don’t want to address that issue?) and conversion instead of playing it down most insultingly (oh, so now Islam and Christianity is interchangeable?), if she has created a more original plot and uses plot devices in a more interesting way – if she has treated her readers like intelligent, cosmopolitan human beings, she probably doesn’t need to be even a little defensive in her afterword.