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The Desert’s Heat Melts Icy Hearts in Sarah Morgan’s Lost to the Desert Warrior

20 Aug

Lost to the Desert Warrior by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, August 20, 2013)

If category romance was the horse world, Sarah Morgan would be a top flight thoroughbred, or – in the case of her latest book, Lost to the Desert Warrior - a gorgeous and swift Arabian.

I plan on outlining the cultural (and complex) phenomenon that is the Sheikh romance, but being a critical reader doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy these story lines, it just means you need to be careful to place your trust in authors whose intelligence and respect ensure they are not going to succumb to ethnic stereotypes or scathing cultural judgement.

Morgan has always been a four star author for me and I never mind plunking down my cash to get her next Harlequin romance. Lost to the Desert Warrior did not disappoint.

Layla and her sister are both princesses of Tazkhan, virtual prisoners of an uncaring father and his brutal regime. Hiding to witness their father’s death, the two young women hear his final demand that Layla marry a prominent and corrupt politician (he’s lived in the palace forever terrorizing the sisters and servants) who will only continue her father’s oppressive policies. Her sister is supposed to be shipped off the United States and never heard from again.

It’s a given that these two young women are brave enough to buck their cruel father’s last wish. They steal a fast stallion and head to the desert in the dead of night, dressed as boys, in order to find the Bedouin warrior and next-in-line ruler, Sheikh Raz Al Zahki. This is a very calculated risk as Al Zahki has every reason to despise them. Their father was responsible for the death of Raz’s father and the beautiful wife he loved. Layla, unused to riding and scared of horses, falls off and her sister, unable to control the stallion they chose for its speed careens off into the desert night, leaving Layla to face Raz and his men alone. He sees through her disguise and listens to her logical proposal, specifically that the two of them make a political marriage which would stabilize the country.

A Night of No Return by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, October 2012)

It’s easy to empathize with Raz. He naturally thinks that Layla is what my husband terms “a frontrunner” – someone who switches allegiance when the going gets tough – and while he clearly knows the marriage is the right thing to do for his people, he also feels that he’s betraying the memory of his beloved wife. They immediately marry and since neither wants to leave any loophole in the marriage, consummate it right away.

Layla is a very sheltered woman in her early twenties and a prolific reader since books have been her only way of really experiencing life outside the palace walls. While she brought a copy of the Kama Sutra with her on her escape (along with her worn copy of One Thousand and One Nights), she hasn’t had a chance to study it to know what Raz might expect from her. Cold and distant, he’s shocked to discover the amazing sexual chemistry between the two of them. After a night of incredible sexual passion (one that actually has Raz leaving the tent afterward), they set off for a safe nearby oasis and the intrigue and complications begin.

It’s impossible not to fall for the characters in this novel. Layla, while naive and inexperienced is still very intelligent, and like many abuse victims, can read people extremely well. She quiet and thoughtful but gives off a complex mixture of innocence and practicality. Her caring nature is readily apparent and being the sole caregiver for her only slightly younger sister means that she’s used to putting aside any personal needs and taking care of those around her.

Raz is not the total a-hole that you often find in sheikh romances. You get the immediate sense of a strong leader with an even stronger sense of duty to his country and people, but he’s not too high and mighty to slowly see Layla for what she is. They do some actual communicating and, even if he could be more forthcoming and says some hurtful things to her, he doesn’t wait until the last five pages until he admits he’s wrong. They are a great couple and while you can’t have very many secondary characters in a category romance novel due to the length, certain relatives and animals are nicely fleshed out and lend themselves to the character development of the hero and heroine.

Woman in a Sheikh’s World by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, December 2012)

A major frustration with Harlequin romances (and I think Harlequin Presents commits this sin far more than the Blaze line) is that they often have intertwined romances – sometimes across authors – and make zero effort to clue in the reader to what other books to read by doing something obvious, like having a series name or deliberately linking the books on Goodreads or Amazon. WTF, Harlequin?

For example, Avery and Malik, the neighboring rulers of another country on the border of Tazkhan which Layla and Raz visit,  are secondary characters in Lost to the Desert Warrior, but their rather heartbreaking story is brought to light as a small subplot in A Night of No Return and then concluded in full (with a well-deserved HEA) in Woman in a Sheik’s World. Both books are part of the Private Lives of Public Playboys series, of which Lost to the Desert Warrior is not a part. Confused yet? Me, too. You don’t need to read either of these books, but considering they are both excellent, it wouldn’t hurt you to do it!

Whether you read the associated books or not, Lost to the Desert Warrior is a fun, well-written novel of the sheikh sub-genre and I wholeheartedly endorse it. My final wish is that Sarah Morgan will next publish the book about Layla’s sister, the one who disappeared into the desert on the feisty Arabian she and Layla stole to get to Raz. Raz sends his best tracker – his taciturn brother and former special forces operator to find her – and there are several references to his search in this book. Sounds like there’s going to be a chance for more heat in the desert soon!

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