Often hailed as the first "bodice ripper" romance, the tale of THE SHEIK is actually quite interesting in context of erotica that preceded it. The idea of a beautiful and well-to-do woman discovering (or, more likely, being forced into) sexual situations in "exotic" locales was hardly a new idea, even in 1920s-- THE LUSTFUL TURK, for example, infamously preceded THE SHEIK by nearly a century. At the same time, the pornography of the past tended to be satire or parody, with little emotional or philosophical depth therein. In contrast, THE SHEIK's serious treatment of its pulpy premise gives the book a timeless quality, even values espoused are unnerving by today's standards. If nothing else, the book works as an exploration of the gender politics of the 1910s and 1920s through a gritty escapist fantasy.
But only one thing matters the most: does it work as a romance? Yes and no. In the end, I enjoyed the novel far more than I had expected, but it read more like a gay transman discovering their identity than it did a traditional romance. Furthermore, unlike modern romances that capitalize on sex appeal, THE SHEIK all but abhors the great physical beauty of the leads. Diana’s journey is an emotional one, which would be fine if those emotions didn’t include severe rape trauma for nearly half the novel. It makes the romance very uncomfortable, as it reads more like a story about Stockholm syndrome than one of true love. However, I was genuinely invested when Diana and Ahmed finally fell in love with one another, so it clearly works on some level.
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel exists. While the power dynamics between Diana and her titular “lover” can be intriguing, the characters themselves are… troubling. Diana comes off as a brat when she’s being abused, and everyone else is either a caricature or underdeveloped. The book tries to evoke some sort of “realism” to the idea of being kidnapped by a handsome stranger by adding in sexual assault and untrustworthy natives into the picture—a commendable goal, perhaps, but the execution is uncomfortably racist most of the time. The Arabs are either exotified, backwards idiots, or just straight up evil. And that’s not even going into the wildly inappropriate backstory of Ahmed himself. THE SHEIK is a product of its times in a bad, BAD way.
If you’re the type of person who can look past un-PC material, and the book’s reputation doesn’t bother you, you may find some enjoyment in THE SHEIK. If you’re more into sizzling sex and bombshell chemistry, best look elsewhere.