This post contains spoilers.
Lady Diana Mayo grew up primarily under her brother's care. He had no clue how to raise a young girl, so he treated her as though she were a boy. As a result, Diana is fairly independent and strong-willed. She is beautiful but barely notices or even cares about the effect she has on men. While visiting the Algerian city of Biskra, she convinces her brother to let her travel in the desert with a small party of natives. He gives her one month to do as she wishes.
Unfortunately for Diana, her guides have been bribed. They are soon overtaken by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan's men, and she is kidnapped. Ahmed repeatedly rapes her. Although Ahmed's people, particularly his French servant, Gaston, treat her with kindness, their loyalties lie entirely with the sheik. There is no chance they will help her to escape, and there is no sign they believe that what Ahmed is doing is wrong.
At one point, Diana almost manages to escape. Unfortunately, Ahmed catches up to her, shoots her beloved horse out from under her, and captures her again. It is at this point that she decides she loves him. Right at the beginning, he told her that if she ever falls in love with him, she will cease to interest him. She does her best to hide her love for him in order to stay with him. By the way, just because she loves him doesn't mean she has stopped fearing him.
Ahmed's hereditary enemy, Ibraheim Omair, kidnaps Diana after learning that Diana is precious to Ahmed. Ahmed gathers up his men and rushes to take Diana back, having finally realized that he loves her. He arrives in time save her from being raped by his enemy but gets wounded while killing everyone around him. After he heals from his injuries, Diana lives in fear that he will send her away, as his coldness towards her seems to indicate he will. It's not until after she nearly commits suicide that she learns that Ahmed has come to love her. She chooses to stay with him and be his wife.
I don't know how this is possible, but somehow I liked and was horrified and repelled by this book, all at the same time. I started reading it after reading snippets of Janet's Dear Author post, “Can't Find My Way Home.” I have read very few older romance novels and no sheik/desert romance novels (although I do own an as-yet unread copy of Marguerite Kaye's Innocent in the Sheikh's Harem). I figured I might as well give this one a try since I could get it for free. I knew to expect racism and a rape-y male protagonist, but that didn't seem to help me much once I was actually reading the book. I almost DNF'ed it a couple times, and yet I can't say I truly hated it. It's weird.
I was most engrossed in the book during the parts before Diana realized she was in love with Ahmed. Prior to her journey into the desert, Diana was naive, fearless, and kind of cold. She believed herself to be incapable of emotion, or at least the softer emotions like affection and love. She had absolutely no concept of how dangerous the desert could be and saw it only as a wild and fascinating place that drew her.
After she was kidnapped, nearly everything that initially defined her was ripped away. She learned to fear, as Ahmed's men overtook her guides and as Ahmed raped her. Hull did a fantastic job of depicting Diana's fear, so fantastic that I almost DNF'ed the book. It was almost painful for me to read further, and even worse to realize that, at some point, Diana was going to fall in love with Ahmed. I had serious doubts that Hull could ever redeem him in my eyes, and those doubts turned out to be justified. I'm uncomfortable with calling The Sheik a romance, because it's not like any other romance I can ever remember reading. It's a Stockholm syndrome romance.
I had expected/hoped that Ahmed would change his behavior towards Diana and realize how horribly he had behaved before Diana fell in love with him. Unfortunately, Ahmed's...discomfort...over what he'd done to Diana came well after she fell in love with him.
Her love seemed to happen literally in an instant. She had worked out a way to escape him and was riding away on her beloved horse, Silver Star. Unfortunately, she had been so focused on just getting away that she neglected to think about what she was going to do next, aside from ride as far away as possible. Ahmed caught up with her and told her he'd shoot her horse if she didn't stop running from him. She was so desperate to get away from him that she decided to call him on that, except he wasn't bluffing. He shot and killed her horse. While he was carrying her back to his home, she realized she'd fallen in love with him. The timing of her realization was so incredibly horrible that I was stunned. I even clicked back a few pages, just to make sure I hadn't missed something.
My horror at Diana's “love” for Ahmed grew when I realized she still feared him. Her totally justified fear of him made him more the kind of person a romance novel heroine should be running away from, rather than someone she should hope to continue to be with. Diana knew, because he had told her, that he would probably send her away if her love for him became obvious, so she tried to hide her feelings from him and pretend that nothing had changed.
If I remember correctly, the most notable shift in Ahmed's feelings occurred when his friend Raoul de Saint Hubert arrived. Diana treated him very much the same way she had treated Arbuthnot, a man who, early on in the book, confessed his love to her. She rejected him but asked if they could continue to be friends. Diana and Saint Hubert's relationship was entirely innocent at first, although Saint Hubert soon fell in love with her. Ahmed was ragingly jealous, and he mostly took it out on Diana. Diana, for her part, had no clue why Ahmed was suddenly so cold towards her.
I'm guessing I was supposed to sigh over my secret knowledge that Ahmed cared for Diana enough to feel jealous. I'm also guessing I was supposed to feel giddy over Ahmed's race to save Diana after she was taken by his enemy, and thrilled at his realization that he loved her. I was supposed to forgive him for his earlier behavior, because upsetting Diana suddenly gave him no pleasure. It's possible that all of this could have given me warm fuzzies, maybe even just a little...if it had all happened prior to Diana falling in love with Ahmed. As it was, it was all too little, too late. Also, considering the depth of Diana's fear earlier in the book, I'm not entirely convinced that the shift in Ahmed's feelings and motivation would have been enough to win me over, no matter when it had occurred. Had I been plotting this book, Diana would have stabbed Ahmed's eyes out at some point. She would then have escaped, dressed a boy, and picked up some street smarts while doing her best to evade Ahmed's men.
Had Hull not written this as a romance, I probably would have liked it a lot more. It's weird that, as much as I disliked the “romance” between Diana and Ahmed, I still enjoyed a good portion of the book. It was an interesting read, and the pacing worked really, really well for me. I'm actually planning on giving the one other book of Hull's on Project Gutenberg a shot someday. I'm just going to need a nice, long break first.
- The Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - This starts with a similar-feeling setup and rapidly becomes much different. The main character, Harry, is a girl who has grown up fairly free to do as she pleases. After her parents die, she is sent to live with her brother in Damar, a desert country. She is kidnapped by Corlath, King of the Hillfolk, because his powers force him to (there are fantasy elements). Corlath is much less awful and arrogant than Ahmed, the horses are treated better, and Harry becomes more awesome rather than less. There is a bit of romance, but mostly this is a mix of fantasy and adventure.
- Desert Hostage (book) by Diane Dunaway - This romance novel has a lot of the same elements as The Sheik: a kidnapped heroine and a rape-y sheik male protagonist. I haven't read it, but it popped up while I was looking for books that might work as read-alikes.
- The Sons of the Sheik (book) by E.M. Hull - This is cheating, but I'm adding it anyway. I came across this while doing some searches on Goodreads, and apparently it's a continuation of Diana and Ahmed's story, starring their children.
- Captive Bride (book) by Johanna Lindsey - I haven't read this, nor anything else by Lindsey. In "Tiger Skins, Sheiks, and Passionate Kisses," Ellen Micheletti (who referred to Ahmed as "Ali") said that this book was basically a retelling of Hull's book, only with more explicit sex scenes. On Goodreads, opinions of Captive Bride vary wildly. Some people love it, while others loathe it. If you weren't bothered by Ahmed's rape-y behavior and don't mind explicit sex scenes, this might work for you.