Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Billionaire Fathi al-Murzim is a workaholic businessman, too busy running the family’s companies to even think about marriage. Too bad he never told his grandfather he’s gay, because Grandfather just announced a childhood betrothal—to a Bedouin girl Fathi never heard about before.
Ikraam din Abdel was raised as a woman by his avaricious and abusive older sister, who didn’t want him to be their father’s heir. He’d never thought to be married either, and is surprised when his sister informs him of his betrothal.
When Fathi and Ikraam meet, they are drawn to each other in a manner neither of them expected. As the plans for their wedding progress, they both realize they need to tell the other the truth. But can they, with both cultural taboos and family pressures to deal with?
Well. Normally the Dreamspun Desires line just does it for me. I love their twists on those old familiar storylines we read in our romances or saw in our movies. But The Secret of the Sheikh’s Betrothed By Felicitas Ivey either came out at the wrong time or the author was not truly cognizant of the messages she seems to be sending here with her storyline and threads. I found myself reading, then going back to double check to see if certain passages really portrayed women so badly (yes in my opinion), then braced myself to continue reading all the way to the end where the author finished her story with a lasting moment that left me wishing I had never picked this story up. Honestly, I think I’m kind with a 2 rating.
But onto the particulars.
Why does this story upset me so?
Well barebones, it’s about a traditional bedouin man whose birth upset his sister’s control of the tribe. She forced his mother (a secondary or minor wife) to raise his as a girl in the large harem where his identity as a male remained unknown even to him under his mother’s care. Basically a servant, an agreement will see him married off to a Sheikh’s son, an arrangement the sister will hope to get him killed while getting her money. If that’s not awful enough, there’s an ugly side story about his niece who the sister intends to marry off to a rapist/thug.
Yes, it has a happy ending, the niece gets saved. The tribe goes back to the desert and Fathi and Ikraam are happy. So why am I sort of nauseated?
Neither niece or Ikraam, the man who has been raised as a woman can read or seen any sort of modern existence. He has no idea what it means to be a man actually other than how his tribe defines it. Yet, the author seems to raise them both higher in esteem than any modern Arabian woman mentioned. There are several scenes here with Fathi’s secretary. She is modern, dresses so while keeping to societal standards for the office. She is striving for a career while having a major crush on her boss, who doesn’t set her straight mind you, letting her continue to assume about his feelings.
Much is made of her makeup, hair and clothing as though it’s a bad thing. Really, this poor character exists for only one purpose. She’s that compare and contrast vehicle! And that’s so that at the end when Ikraam, dressed in all his new traditional Bedouin and extremely female marriage finery (each clothing is listed, coins glittering) corrects the poor girl about how to address her/his husband. All the family gather around this wonderful Bedouin married ‘woman’ and help her humiliate the secretary completely in letting her know yes, her boss is now married to a traditional woman, so “quit, your job, honey.” And they all have a good laugh as the girl basically runs out of the office, shamed in front of all her co workers. Never mind that she was a hard worker, did a great job and was well educated. Nope, clearly a makeup wearing, high heeled tramp! Grandfather was quite clear on his feelings about that. What a nasty little scene that was. Ikraam happily continues his existence appearing to be a woman in the traditional Arabian cultural role.
Yes women are the evil ones here. From the sister who beat Ikraam to that poor secretary, all the responsibility falls on the woman’s shoulders. Men? Pretty passive. That thug/rapist? Given a donkey or something and sent off back to the tribe to marry again. The sister? She remains in control because she purposely married a weak man. The totally ‘by the books, loves his old ways’ grandfather does something totally out of character (had to for the novel) and accepts Fathi and Ikraam’s sexuality. Uh no. But in face of everything else, that’s minor.
No, it’s still the treatment of women here. Was it really necessary to bring this element into the story? Ikraam and niece still can’t read. How’s he going to fit into his husband’s new world? Explore that! You didn’t need that secretary at all. Yes, Ikraam is basically a “woman” in a man’s body because that’s how he was raised. That’s a far more interesting idea to investigate that then the paths the author went down. Ikraam even mentions he had no idea he was a boy until he was much older. That must have blown his psyche. But no….let’s go the “new is evil and old/traditional is everything” and do it while throwing women under the bus.
Maybe I shouldn’t take a lighthearted romance this seriously. But in light of the #MeToo campaigns, of women fighting for the right just to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, of all the fights for rights that seem to be heading backwards these days, surely we don’t need to do it in our fiction as well. This is one story that just struck me all wrong. Shrugs.
And now you know why.
Cover art by Bree Archer is nice and has the right backdrop.
ebook, 212 pages
Expected publication: November 15th 2017 by Dreamspinner Press