Friday, May 6, 2022

Desert Captive by Penelope Neri

 

So I have an Instagram where I showcase books from my collection of vintage romance novels, and people are always leaving me comments asking me if I've read this or that, and to my shame, the answer is usually NO. Which made me sad. So I've decided to rectify that by picking out books in my collection that have intrigued me and working my way through them. DESERT CAPTIVE, I decided, would be the first, since it's probably in my top ten favorite clinch covers of all time.

LIKES: 

👍 Childhood friends to enemies to lovers. Alexa and Sharif knew each other as children when her archeologist father was working in Egypt. They were separated for twenty years but neither forgot the other, and Sharif, in his obsession, is determined to get his precious at all costs.
👍 Hero is totally obsessed with the heroine. As soon as he has his precious "wild apricot," his previous mistress gets the boot. He barely looks at other women and doesn't cheat on her at all. And it's honestly hilarious, the lengths he would go to seduce, trick, and manipulate her into loving him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had a heroine-shaped weakness that was rather painfully obvious to everyone around him-- except the heroine. Whoops.
👍 Hero is hilariously arrogant and theatrical. I LOVE this man, okay. At one point, when she's being carried off into the desert, she thinks his erection is poking her. And he's like, "Nah, that's just my dagger. My dick is even bigger, praise God!" And at another point, he's like, "SERVE ME MY JUICE NAKED BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO." He recites poetry in his bedroom when he knows she's outside because he's hoping to make her think he's with another woman. This man is hilarious and I love him. If you're going to do a campy alpha hero, this is the playbook.
👍 He calls the heroine his "wild apricot." Just... PLEASE.
👍 It's surprisingly dark. The central conflict is that Sharif's friend (Kedar, I think?) wants to murder the heroine's sadistic brother, Keene, for raping his bride-to-be and killing her escort. Keene flees, so Kedar wants to take his revenge out on the heroine, since she's his blood relative, which obviously Sharif will not allow. There are some torture scenes, people are left to die in the desert, there are some descriptive plans of revenge, and there's an OW who's willing to stoop to murder to get what she wants (i.e. the hero). So that's fun.
👍 Random BDSM. When the heroine tries to run away, the hero punishes her by treating her like a slave in some weird consensual non-consent roleplay. He puts her in revealing clothing, then forces her to strip. He makes her serve him juice naked, and then he ties her to the bed and licks juice off her whole body. Also, he smacks her with a flogger before giving her a spanking. Kinky.

DISLIKES:

👎 Holy purple prose, Batman. There are meticulously pruned and tended flower gardens in England that are somehow less flowery than this book. The author knew how to spin a setting and create sexual tension, but boy, did she not know when to stop sometimes. At one point, the heroine's "flower" moistens with "honey" under the hero's tongue. When she climaxes at one point, it's described as if she were about to explode into a shower of flower petals.
👎 Uneven pacing. I wish there had been more action scenes and a lot of the I love him... no! No! I hate him! scenes were cut down. This book was 500 pages and I felt EVERY page of that. Someone needed to go through this book with a red pen and leave some of those purple prose sex scenes on the cutting room floor.
👎 Closure? What closure? Don't get me wrong, there's an HEA-- but what happens to the OW? And to Sharif's evil cousin? Also, I feel like the whole thing with Keene was super weird. The ending and what happened with him was not satisfying. He was a serial rapist, okay? You can't redeem him. And I'm sorry, but the "my brain tumor made me rape and murder people!" excuse really didn't work for me.
👎 I mean... it fetishizes Middle Eastern culture. I've said before that sheikh romances are the last lingering bastion of Victorian Orientalism. And I stand by that. Romance authors try to get around that by making up countries to-- I suspect-- a) avoid doing research and b) avoiding anyone specifically, but that doesn't really work because a) you look lazy and b) people are still going to be offended. Sharif is less rapey than most, and he's not a sexist, so yay. But this is set up in a pseudo-Bedouin like environment in what is basically a cross between Algeria and Egypt, and people ululate before killing people and Allah is thrown around in every other sentence, and it's honor this and honor that, and everyone loves the heroine's white skin and green eyes, and also I feel like the author must have tried camel milk at some point and hated it, because there's this long running gag about how gross camel cheese is and she makes a point of saying that one of the bad guys smells like rancid camel butter. It's basically like a *slightly* less offensive version of E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK or Johanna Lindsey's CAPTIVE BRIDE, which kind of worked but... yeah, I side-eyed a lot of things.

In short, this book is basically bodice-ripper lite. There is forced seduction and some weird OW and villain drama, and naturally, in the vein of Bertrice Small and internalized 80s homophobia everywhere, bad guys are effeminate Joffrey Baratheon wannabes who like doing it in the butt. But the hero is surprisingly sweet in a fucked up way and unlike 95% of sheikh romances out there, where I feel like I'm committing a hate crime just by looking at the covers, I felt like the author was at least trying not to be completely over the top offensive. For example, the heroine thinks nothing of converting to Islam while staying with the people, thinking to herself that there is just "one God" and people just worship him differently, so she goes with it out of respect to the people who have taken her in. Which I actually thought was super progressive and sweet considering when this was written. She also learns the language and ends up forming a pretty deep friendship with several of the women there, and there were lots of little moments like that where it's like, "Okay, author, you TRIED."

I'm keeping this book mainly because of the gorgeous cover but there are definitely some Sharif's Greatest Hits(TM) scenes that I would like to revisit, either because they were funny or hot or both. Thanks to my friend, Meredith, for reading this with me.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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