I wanted something different from a desert romance. What I got was the most stereotypical virgin heroine/playboy hero romance of all time.
I kind of loved Shamed in the Sands, even though no one gets shamed in the sand, because it made me feel, like, super smart. In my scholarly life, I write a ton about Harlequin Mills & Boon books with virgin heroines, and pretty much every second sentence is, ‘but not ALL BOOKS are the same, because you have definitely been oversold on the idea that category romance has a formula.’ But nonetheless, there are a bunch of common tropes I’ve identified that pop up a lot—a kind of virgin heroine playbook, as it were.
This book could basically BE the virgin heroine playbook. This is the most standard portrayal of a virgin heroine/playboy hero pairing I have ever seen.
Now, this is kind of weird, because the heroine of this book is quite unusual. The standard desert romance has an Arab hero and a white heroine, right? This one flips it, with a white hero and a heroine who is the princess of the fake nation of Qurhah. I was pretty excited to see how this would play out—I’ve only ever read one Arabic heroine before—but it turns out that it plays out so normally it’s almost parodic.
Warning: here be spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Let’s start with our hero and heroine. The hero is called Gabe Steel, because we all know true heroes have names that sound like they could be porn stars. He has ‘golden-dark hair’ (whatever that means), ‘quicksilver’ eyes, DOES NOT DO EMOTIONAL, OKAY, and has a super power: ‘…Gabe could smell a woman’s scent in a pitch-black room, even when she wasn’t wearing perfume. He could accurately assess the hip-width of a pair of panties from nothing more than a cursory glance.’
And the heroine… her name is Princess Leila Scheherazade.
That’s right. Scheherazade. Facepalm.
Anyway, hero meets heroine when she pounds frantically on his door in the hotel he’s staying at in the capital city of her fake Arabic country. (He’s in advertising, and he’s there to work out the details of some national tourist campaign or something—the fake Arabian equivalent to ‘where the bloody hell are you?’) She’s running from someone or something, and she’s all, ‘hide me!’ and he’s all, ‘um… okay.’ She’s like, ‘where can I hide?’ and he tells her to hide under the bathtub.
Is that a thing? That people can do? Hide under a bathtub? It does not seem to me that even a very small person could fit under a bathtub.
Thankfully, when two big burly dudes come along looking for her, Gabe manages to head them off before they even come inside, so we’re not privy to her going, ‘hang on, he has just asked me to pull off a feat of contortion even Cirque du Soleil artists would wince at.’ The burly dudes leave, and Gabe is immediately all, ‘so… um, how about you tell me what the actual fuck is going on here?’
And in response, she pulls out a portfolio of photos and is like, ‘look at these! aren’t they pretty!’ and then suddenly they’re talking about photos and how she wants him to give her a job.
To his credit, he’s like, ‘um, nope, I don’t just hand out jobs because you burst into my hotel room, I’m weird like that.’ But he’s not really paying attention to the whole ‘give me a job!’ plotline, because he’s too busy being warm for her form. This apparently includes ‘neat breasts’, which made me wonder what untidy ones would look like. And we get this stunning piece of prose: ‘Her lips were soft and gleaming. They looked as if they had been specially constructed to accommodate his erection and to suck him dry.’
I don’t even know what to do with that.
During this whole saga, he’s been wearing nothing more than a towel, because apparently he’d only just got out of the shower when Leila knocked on his door. And, because this is the most standard virgin heroine book in the history of ever, we get this admission that This Is The First Time She’s Ever Been Aroused, OMG:
…her thoughts were being confused by the powerful signals her body was sending out. She could feel the honeyed rush of heat between her thighs, where the thick seam of her jeans was rubbing against the most secret place of her body. She wanted to wrap her arms around her chest to try to quell the terrible aching in her breasts, yet she knew that would only draw attention to them.
Leila had read plenty of books and seen most of the current crops of films which had got past the palace censors. She might have been sheltered, but she wasn’t stupid. This was sexual attraction she was experiencing for the first time and she knew it was wrong.
I dunno. That whole terrible aching breasts thing sounds quite worrying, really.
Being a Fake Arabian Princess™, her culture is obviously deeply obsessed with her purity and she’s always locked up, etc etc. (There are a bunch of really troubling Orientalist assumptions here, but this isn’t really the time or place for me to launch into a critique of the way Harlequin Mills & Boon regularly sets up a problematic dichotomy between the primitive east and the enlightened west.) She wants to rebel against this repressive society. She’d hoped to do so by getting a job, but the sight of Gabe’s bare chest makes her think of another way to rebel, and that way is by having the sex.
And yeah, she’s never been kissed before, so it’s all a great awakening, blah blah blah, page straight out of the virgin heroine playbook. There’s the standard, ‘but he must have had so many lovers! and he will never fall in love with me, because men don’t do that, on account of basically being walking erections! I must not forget this! But it’s all right, because I can have this fleeting moment of pleasure which is mine, all mine!’
Then he gets out a condom and she freaks out—not because she’s afraid of having sex, but… actually I don’t know why she’s freaking out, or what the italics are doing in this passage. It’s kind of weird.
Leila saw the glint of foil and the reality of what she was about to do suddenly hit her.
Because that was a condom; she was certain of it. She might never have encountered one before, but what else could it be?
She felt the icy clamp of sweat on her forehead as reality suddenly broke into her erotic thoughts. Did all women feel this sudden sense of panic the first time? The fear that she might disappoint him?
He was putting the item on the table beside the bed, and while she knew that she should be grateful to him for being pragmatic, it destroyed the mood a little. Why was real life so messy? she wondered bitterly. In films, you never saw any of this.
I… what? How do you get from condoms to ‘OMG EVERYTHING IS SO MESSY’?
But whatevs. Back to the virgin heroine playbook. He’s all like, ‘we can stop if you want,’ and she’s like, ‘um don’t even think about it buddy’, on account of why shouldn’t she get to have sex like a normal person before she gets shut in an ivory harem tower being a fake Arabian princess forevermore? (She also seems to think that all men everywhere have sex every day, something I feel like she could disprove quite simply using basic statistics.) And then she sees his penis, and I had to put the book down for a minute to have a good laugh because of this line:
Her heart began to pound with excitement as his body was revealed to her, for she had only ever seen a horse from the royal stables in such a state of arousal before.
Bless your heart, Princess Leila Scheherazade.
So he thrusts, she cries out with pain, he stills, and we have page 56 of the virgin heroine handbook: ‘why didn’t you tell me you were a virgin?’, followed swiftly by page 87, ‘no, don’t stop, no, please, show me how to feel pleasure.’ (Obviously implicit in here is page 32: ‘his peen can tell the state of her hymen’; page 14, ‘hero is angry she’s a virgin’; and page 78, ‘it always hurts for virgins’.) And then we get this, which is a perfect example of many, many pages in the virgin heroine handbook:
Was this why men spoke wonderingly about virgins, because they were so tight? Or because it gave a man a sense of power to know that he was the first?
Basically what I’m getting at is that this book is going in my PhD thesis SO HARD.
Speaking of SO HARD, they bang, and she comes, and he comes, and it’s amazing—you all know how this scene goes. Gabe ‘totes not a porn star’ Steel thinks the most romance novel hero line of all time—‘He knew that he couldn’t give love—but he could certainly give great orgasms.’—and then promptly falls asleep. She sneaks out and he thinks he’ll never see her again…
…until the next day, when he’s at a state dinner at the palace of Fake Arabia, and WHO SHOULD HE BE SITTING NEXT TO EXCEPT THE PRINCESS.
They bicker quietly—he’s all, ‘why didn’t you tell me you were a princess? You realise I would totes have been beheaded if anyone caught us in bed yesterday, like, oh, I don’t know, THOSE TWO MASSIVE BODYGUARDS LOOKING FOR YOU,’ and she’s like, ‘bitch, please, how backwards do you think we are? We don’t behead people,’ and he’s like, ‘you’re lucky I don’t tell your brother the sultan you behaved like a whore yesterday,’ and she’s all shocked that he called her a whore and is like, ‘I hate you.’
They talk about love and sex, and he’s all, ‘nope, you don’t have to be in love to have sex,’ and she gets busy thinking NOT GONNA FALL IN LOVE WITH HIM, NOPE NOPE NOPE. To which I was like, ‘well, he just called you a whore, so that’s not going to be that hard, right? RIGHT?!’ And he thinks this:
He didn’t like women who were obvious. Who had persistent exes or brothers who were sultans. He had an antenna for women who were trouble and it never failed him before. He resisted the tricky ones. The neurotic and needy ones.
Yes, I just included that because the word antenna is, like, so phallic. Shut up.
That’s about the first sixty pages of the book, and it’s kind of where most of the action is. Here is a quick rundown of the rest of it:
LEILA: *realises she is preggers*
LEILA: *fabricates excuse to travel to London, despite the fact she’s never, ever been allowed out of fake Arabia before*
LEILA: *tracks down Gabe and tells him she is preggers*
GABE: *freaks out a bit*
GABE: *demands they get married*
LEILA: *hastily reconsiders*
GABE AND LEILA: *get married*
GABE AND LEILA: *have a shit ton of sex*
GABE: *goes back to work*
LEILA: *is bored*
LEILA: *asks GABE for a job in his company*
GABE: *hastily reconsiders*
…not much happens for a while…
LEILA: *finds out it was his birthday on the day they first shagged*
GABE: *says that he normally gets hammered on his birthday but this time he had sex with her instead*
LEILA: *finds this offensive*
GABE: *finally spills his backstory about how he was dirt poor and then when he was working in a bar when he was 16 he made some suggestion to a bunch of advertising execs that turned out to be brilliant and netted him a bunch of money and made him a future as an advertising protégé*
JODI: *wonders why these advertising execs didn’t just steal his idea, but whatever*
GABE: *admits he has issues with the fact that LEILA grew up wealthy when he was poor*
LEILA: *asks why he didn’t just tell her that instead of being vaguely passive-aggressive at her when they weren’t boning *
GABE: I love you!
LEILA: I love you also!
BABY: *is born in the epilogue*
EVERYONE: *lives happily ever after*
Yeah, it kind of goes off the rails towards the end there. Gabe is secretive for absolutely no reason, and Leila makes a big deal out of the fact that they had sex on his birthday for no reason, and then… suddenly it’s all fine. It feels both very rushed and like it wasn’t plotted properly: it was very UNPLANNED PREGNANCY! …and then some stuff happens, the end.
But it’s worth it just for some of the so-stereotypical-it’s-basically-a-parody-of-itself bits. Like this musing of Gabe’s on how he is HOLLOW LIKE HIS SOUL:
He hoped his exquisite bride wasn’t entertaining any fantasies about love—and maybe he needed to spell that out for her. To start as he meant to go on. With the truth. To tell her that he was incapable of love. That he had ice for a heart and a dark hole for a soul. That he broke women’s hearts without meaning to.
I also quite enjoyed—where by ‘enjoyed’ I mean ‘wrinkled my nose and said, ‘what?’’—their second sex scene, where this happens:
‘Is something wrong?’ she whispered.
‘Wrong?’ he echoed unsteadily. ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m just savouring every delicious moment. Because for the first time in my life I don’t have to worry about contraception.’
This book is very weird about contraception. It’s also not great on abortion—the possibility is raised, and they’re both OMG OUTRAGED at the thought they could do such a thing. Sadly, this is a Harlequin Mills & Boon standard. I would love it if there could, just once, be a recognition that abortion is a viable option, if not necessarily the one they’ve chosen. Le sigh.
And to return to the virgin heroine playbook—in the second sex scene, we get this from Leila:
Was this what playboy lovers enjoyed most—to share fantasies? Didn’t he realise that she was still too much of a novice to have any real fantasies?
Leila, honey, virgins still get to fantasise, no matter what your edition of the virgin heroine playbook says.
Yay or nay?
I’m going to go nay on this one, largely because the plot in the second half is extremely thin and, where it exists, it doesn’t make that much sense. And also I wanted something more: something different from a desert romance with this unusually flipped pairing, and what I got was the most stereotypical virgin heroine/playboy hero romance of all time.
But still. It has this line: ‘All he was experiencing was the stupefying effect of hormones as his body gathered up its resources to make love to her again.’
I would have loved it if his OMG BIG SECRET turned out to be that he was a robot or something, because a) that’s what that sounds like, and b) that would have been way more interesting.
Who might enjoy it: Readers looking for the quintessential Harlequin romance
Who might not enjoy it: Readers looking for something even a tiny bit different
A reading copy of this book was generously provided by Harlequin Australia.