A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
Trapped in his life as a pleasure slave, Noori serves each master who passes through the amir’s realm. No one sees beyond the slave’s body—no one bothers to look—until the sheikh of a desert tribe discovers the once-free, educated man could be an asset to his business. Noori’s life is turned upside down as the sheikh takes him to his new home, where he will discover new challenges, new people, the possibility of freedom, and the irresistible lure of love.
The Sheikh and the Servant is the second book I’ve read by this author (I read and enjoyed Dissonance, reviewed here by Jen) and the second book released in Dreamspinner Press’ new historical series Timeless Dreams. This was a difficult review for me to write, as I will try to explain in just a bit. Also, I won’t be addressing the historical accuracy as I am not an expert.
TSATS has an almost fairy-tale air to it, like “Once upon a time in a land far away…” type of story. Set somewhere in the desert (Middle East? Northern Africa?) in at least the mid 1750’s (we are not given a date, but one of the protags wears glasses and the characters all wear traditional desert garb, not modern clothing) and told in alternating POVs, it is a tale of dreams coming true and finding love. Noori is a pleasure slave for the oftentimes cruel amir Qutaibah, attending to the amir’s guests as they desire. He is different from other slaves and servants as he is fair, blue-eyed and educated. Sold as a young person (of undisclosed age) into slavery to cover his father’s gambling debts, he comes from an unnamed northern land (probably from one of the Scandinavian countries: “From the land far across the northern sea, Master.”). Noori is assigned to Shahin, the Sheikh of a desert tribe, when he comes to the castle for trade meetings. Surprised that Noori is educated, Shahin engages Noori to help him with reading, as his eyesight isn’t the greatest, and in working through the trade agreements. He does not, however, engage him in any kind of smexxin, which pleasantly surprises and somewhat confuses Noori, choosing instead to have Noori sleep with him each night. Noori is further amazed when the Sheikh purchases him away from the amir and takes him to his tribe. Noori is in for more surprises and confusion as his duties once settled in are not what he anticipated. Thus begins the story of how Noori worms his way into Shahin’s life and heart.
Noori longs for a way out of his situation with the amir, though at the same time accepting of his lot in life to the present. He tries to be the best at what he does, and is confused when the Sheikh turns down his “services.” And once he is in the Sheikh’s tent city, he is even further confused about his role and what the Shahin expects from him. But he recognizes the good, just, kind, revered man Shahin is and desires him for it.
Shahin is a twice-widowed father of two and leader of his people. Also accepting of his situation, he is not looking for a partner of any kind and definitely is surprised in his feelings for Noori. A thing to note is that I suspect, based on the lack of reaction — and even encouragement — from his people, homosexuality is not an issue in the time and place of the story, and as such, there isn’t any angst about Shahin being attracted to a man.
The pacing is generally gentle and quiet, with a pickup toward the end when there is a conflict with the amir. We meet many secondary cast members, from tribe folk to Shahin’s family to people from other tribes, and I noted that all of the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. Also, the story is basically non-sexual— ironic considering the profession of one of the protags — with only one barely-described act toward the end, making it very much about the intimacy and relationship between these two men.
I had some issues with this book that I am having difficulty putting into words, even to myself. There is nothing horrible about the story — the plot, the characters, the writing, the editing are all fine — but I just never got into it. I read it twice for this review and each time I was left with an “eh” feeling at the end.
Part of it may be that the writing and the dialog are fairly formal and a little stiff, which I guess is part of the ambiance. Note that there is one exception, one sentence that I simply didn’t get compared to the entire rest of the story: “It’s gonna be a rough ride.” It felt completely and utterly out of place, so much so that it threw me out of the story completely and I thought about that sentence for the rest of the book. There are few contractions throughout the book, and “it’s,” combined with the word “gonna,” well it just seemed wrong in context to the rest.
I am guessing the author purposefully kept away from defined descriptions of details — location, era, etc — to retain that fairy-tale feel, but for me, that was distracting. For one example, what age is Noori? He guesses Shahin at about 40, yet he comments two-thirds of the way through the book that he is likely older than Shahin. Up to that point, I had pictured him perhaps in his mid to late twenties. I mean, what is the occupational lifespan of a pleasure slave in the late 1700s? I would have thought even early forties to be kind oldish for a sex slave, especially given the life expectancy of the time. The lack of details may not be of issue to other readers, but I happen to like those kinds of tidbits that complete the story for me.
Lastly, I never got felt like I really got to know Shahin that well. We are in Noori’s head more often and I could see how his life has dictated his personality, actions, feelings, but Shahin was somewhat of an enigma to me. Again, perhaps that was the author’s intent — to make him more mysterious — but I would have liked more insight.
The Sheikh and the Servant is a book I didn’t love nor hate. It was one of those middle-of-the-road reads with some issues, but nothing terrible. It would be of interest to readers looking for a historical read set in somewhere in a desert land.