The Sheikh's Destiny
A North Africa-set sheikh romance with a heroine who is also Arab? Sign me up!
Alim El-Kanar, sheikh of Abbas Al-Din, has spent the years since his older brother’s tragic death driving medical supplies through a war-torn region of the Sahel desert in northern Africa. Hana al-Sud, from Alim’s country but raised in Australia, is likewise hiding from her own family disaster by working as a humanitarian nurse in a small village. When Alim is injured and brought to her, Hana must save the famous man while hiding his identity from the omnipresent forces of the local warlord. A dangerous escape is their only option.
The first half of this book is an absolute DIK. Hana and the villagers live under a realistically and bleakly depicted occupation. The local warlord’s men take anything they want when they come by, from medicine to food to women, and the villagers must develop coping strategies. Hana wears a burqa to deter male interest. The villagers bury supplies under coffins in the cemetery to prevent theft. I did question the feasibility of such tight surveillance on one tiny village in a land with so many of them, but I accepted that the warlord’s interest in Hana might have put more of a spotlight there. Plus, it made for gripping, almost dystopian reading.
I give the author so much credit for making Hana and Alim feel so right for each other so efficiently. Small interactions build intimacy. Hana’s Aussie intolerance for Alim’s lordly sheikh mode, and Alim’s pleasure when she pops his bubble convinced me that a wealthy, racecar-driving sheikh had found his soul-mate in a miner’s daughter. Hana and Alim’s escape from the village is both edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and an exercise in character and relationship writing, each character bringing essential skills and resources as they negotiate his history of command with her medical and geographic expertise. I can’t offer any higher praise than to say The Sheikh’s Destiny reminded me of some of the great Carla Kelly Harlequin road romances, like The Wedding Journey or Marrying the Royal Marine.
I enjoyed the dialogue. Alim and Hana are both bilingual in English and Arabic (Hana also speaks Swahili), and while I don’t know much about Arabic, I could tell that the author did. The characters use various dialects, including that of their North African setting and their Gulf home. She writes English dialogue and Arabic dialogue differently, and the characters navigate the choice of language in a way that feels authentic to the bilingual experience. For instance, their intimate dialogue is in Arabic, but when trying to re-establish emotional distance, both characters deliberately choose English.
Unfortunately, once Hana and Alim are rescued, the book weakens significantly. I’m convinced this issue is entirely due to the page count. The meet and the escape receive a lavish 150 of the 192 pages, and they are well worth every word. However, forty-two pages is not enough to resolve all of the issues that remain afterwards. With more pages, the author might not have had to resort to Alim forcing Hana to return to Abbas Al-Din and visit her family, which felt out of character for a man who’d learned to respect her competence and decision-making. Alim’s reconciliation with his family is forced off-camera to make enough time for Hana to have any ‘screen time’ at all. Hana rightfully protests that her scandalous background makes her a poor and controversial candidate for a ruler’s wife, but her issues are too easily swept away in an “and the people came to love her” epilogue since there’s no space to fix them
In non-length related problems: on the very first page of the book, Alim says he must avoid being captured because his ransom would fuel spending by the warlord, but nobody feels guilty when millions are paid later. While I didn’t mind a baby-filled epilogue (most rulers of Gulf states have large families), I felt that the reference to Hana delivering without pain relief was gratuitous and smacked of Mommy Wars.
I wish desperately that The Sheikh’s Destiny had been a full-length novel and not a category because there was such a fabulous start here. I still highly recommend it because while the dénouement is rushed, the opening adventure is wonderfully diverse and detailed in its cast and setting and filled with intense action. Just consider the second part an extended epilogue, and you’ll be fine.