Harlequin Mills & Boon, £3.49, ISBN 978-0-263-90847-3
Contemporary Romance, 2014
Now, I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to stories with inappropriate cultural appropriation. It’s something I’ve learned to live with a long time ago – as a Chinese living in Southeast Asia, I’ve have far less books to read if I blacklist every book that has even a whiff of cultural appropriation – and, let’s face it, an entire line of books written by white women that feature fake sheikhs and what not has “we live to turn your race and skin color into our fetish” practically emblazoned on the book covers in bright neon colors.
I have to say, however, I am taken aback by the way the author simply slaps elements that scream “Christian and white” over supposed Middle-Eastern elements here and call it a sheikh romp to remember. Perhaps this happens more regularly and I am unaware of it – I do make it a habit to avoid books of this nature, after all, and this time around, I was taken in by the lovely guy on the cover – but Ms Pammi deserves a medal for having pure balls of steel here.
The main characters go “Ya, Allah!” left and right and generally have allegedly Middle-Eastern names and looks – the heroine, though, is on the lily white side, naturally – and they even have an imam officiate their wedding. But they exchange wedding rings, the heroine takes on the hero’s surname (the author clearly has no idea that Muslims don’t have family names like Westerners and some Asians do) after she is wedded, and she wears a Western-styled wedding gown. The hero is amazed that she doesn’t wear white like “tradition” dictates. And on and on – the author basically demonstrates that she knows squat about anything remotely related to any Middle-Eastern culture, she doesn’t care, as hey, this book is read only by white people, right?
Perhaps the author is trying to gain international notoriety like how Salman Rushdie did with The Satanic Verses? Maybe she’s hoping that some billionaire from the UAE would read this book while waiting for a transit flight to Dubai, with subsequent result of her photo pasted on phone booths all over the Middle-East region with the accompanying sign “Have you shot this infidel?”.
Now, putting aside the fact that The Last Prince of Dahaar wouldn’t go down well for some people, this one turns out to be a very uneven book. Even at its best, it clocks a mere “okay”, and for the most part, it makes me cringe because, in the first half of this book, the heroine is just out of control.
Zohra Katherine Naasar Al-Akhtum – Akhtum? Why not Tatooine? – is the Princess of Siyaad. She’s the princess only because her father is a decent fellow who decides to acknowledge her as his daughter; she’s the product of his affair with an American woman before he put his rear end on the throne, and he took her in after her mother died. Her father is content to push her forward as his eldest daughter despite the fact that she’s her illegitimate daughter and may not be considered by many as a suitable member of the royalty.
Zohra hates Siyaad, however, and she especially hates the fact that she’s to be married off to Prince Ayaan bin Riyaaz Al-Sharif – these names are really making me laugh, I tell you, they are as bad as the names of those Greek and Argentinean tycoons – because she hates everything. She runs into his bedroom when the story opens to demand that he tells her father that he is breaking off the whole thing, because, you know, that’s what reasonable adult women do in such a situation, and finds him in throes of writhing around and going “Woo-ooo-ooh!” all over. Naturally, she stays in that room and even goes to him, because that is what reasonable adult women do when they confront a guy acting like a crazed baboon while they are alone and unarmed.
Aryan, er, Ayaan believes that he is going mad. Certainly, his night time episodes seem to suggest this. He is compelled to marry Zohra because of his duty as a prince to his land, so he is befuddled and annoyed by this woman who is in the same position as him but acts like a brat about it. When he points out that, should she just run away from her responsibility, duty would force her sixteen-year old half sister to take her place. Zohra, who doesn’t even think of this as she can’t think about anything and anyone that isn’t herself, is like, “Oh, wait, maybe I can’t just stomp my foot and force people to do things my way after all… BUT I WILL HATE EVERYONE FOREVER!”
So they marry, and Zohra spends the first half of this book acting like a shrew gone wild. She insists that the marriage is to be in name only, but acts horribly offended and hurt when he decides to go, “Okay, then this is going to be a cold and sex-free marriage like you wanted.” She is so lonely and hurt and sad, but she refuses to play nice with Ayaan, who is actually one of the more decent and reasonable heroes in this line. She tells him that they won’t be all warm and cuddly, and then wails that the marriage is not warm and cuddly. She wants him to open up to her, but when he does, she thinks that she couldn’t let him get under her skin – she wanted a cold and cuddle-free marriage, remember? – but he is, dang it, so she must somehow run away and end this marriage. When she does get what she wants – a husband who is distant and cold enough that he won’t even touch her skin, much less get under it – she would wail, yet again, that nobody loves her, she is so lonely, and life is so unfair.
Just what the hell does this stupid woman really want? She doesn’t know it, and fine, I mean, that’s understandable, as sometimes people don’t know what they want even when they are on their deathbed. But the bulk of the conflict arises from her wanting and demanding something, often in a loud and petulant manner, only to wail even louder and more petulantly when she does get what she wanted, because what she wanted turns out to be something that she doesn’t like after all. This goes on for so long that I start to pity the hero. I can’t imagine that one day I would think of a hero in a Harlequin Mills & Boon book as a poor emasculated sod, but here he is, the poor baby.
Zohra’s complete lack of self-awareness is actually quite awesome to behold, like how Godzilla is impressive to look at right before that darling brings a giant foot down on me. She continuously rants about how she feels suffocated by the rigid rules and customs of the land, and yet she runs around freely without no one to stop her. She continuously berates and mocks and insults her husband. He tolerates her antics, which would be a sign that he is probably nowhere as traditional as she accuses him to be. Naturally, our heroine is too stupid and self-absorbed to know this.
What’s more bizarre is that the author knows this too. The hero often accuses Zohra – accurately – of being a childish, spoiled, and impulsive little girl. Instead of showing me how Zohra grows up, however, she basically has Zohra undergoes a complete personality makeover at about the midway point of the story. This Zohra 2.0 suddenly becomes a heroine who understands Ayaan’s inner demons and vows to stay by him. Maybe it’s the sex, I don’t know, as this new personality also comes with a steely determination to get him to shag her as often as possible. I find this Zohra more tolerable than the insane child of the first half, however, so I’m more than happy to take this version without quibble. That doesn’t change the fact that the author has botched up her heroine’s character growth, though.
The Last Prince of Dahaar is like two books that are clumsily joined together, thanks to the heroine’s abrupt personality shift. Even then, the better part is quite predictable, as it doesn’t deviate too much from the “wounded alpha male and his darling martyr” formula. That won’t be so bad if the first half wasn’t so, so, so awful – and it is! The hilariously inappropriate Westernization of anything Middle-Eastern is only icing on the cake. In this case, it’s actually a good thing, as it provides some unintentional hilarity to dull the pain that is everything about the heroine in the first half of the story. It doesn’t make the whole thing acceptable or good in the first place, however, so I’d recommend keeping this book as far away as possible from Muslims or people from the Middle-Eastern parts of the world. They have their own problems – they don’t deserve to be inflicted with this book as well.