Oct 13 2016 8:30am

The Evolution of the Sheikh Hero

The Sheik by Edith Maude Hull

No genre, including romance, exists in a vacuum.  It is reflective of its time and place in history, and of the societal mores and norms its writers and readers operate within.  As time marches on, so does genre fiction and nothing illustrates this in romance quite the way the sheikh hero does.

The sheikh hero in romance has always been problematic.  From Edith Maude Hull’s sensational 1919 novel, The Sheikh, to the bodice ripper era - the sheikh in romance used historical and cultural appropriation to define a predominantly white female sexuality.  And yet the sheikh hero lives on.  Even in a post-9/11 world when many thought that surely the events of that day would be the end of him.  But it wasn’t.  If anything the sheikh remains as popular as he ever was.  Why is that?  Why do we continue to be fascinated by the sheikh hero even knowing and recognizing all of these problematic elements?  The same reason many other popular romance archetypes persist to this day.  Nothing ever really goes away in the genre; instead it changes with the times.

Brother from Another Mother

The Widow and the Sheikh by Marguerite Kaye

As it continues to expand and diversify, the sheikh hero is finding his way back into historical romance—while moving past the unsavory “forced seduction” and harems of the bodice ripper era.  In The Widow and the Sheikh by Marguerite Kaye, our hero is reluctantly returning home after years of estrangement to find himself saddled with a title and responsibilities he doesn’t want (sound familiar Regency historical fans?).  Along the way he runs into the heroine, an English botanist stranded and robbed by an untrustworthy guide.  Kaye works within an era when many English, for good and ill, were traveling to “exotic” locales and gives her sheikh hero some common ground with the many English aristocrats cluttering up the genre. All while giving the story its own sense of place and never losing sight of the world-building.

Someday My Prince Will Come

A lot of romance readers read the genre for the fairy tale, and nothing screams fairy tale quite like aristocracy and royalty.  Sheikhs are royalty.  In Bound to the Warrior King, Maisey Yates takes the idea of Beauty and the Beast, mixes in a little Pygmalion and totally runs with it.  This is a book that is not steeped in reality – it’s the book you read when you want to be swept off your feet by Prince Charming.  Although in this instance, Prince Charming is a haunted man trying to heal his country and himself after his evil brother’s disastrous rule.  He’ll need the help of the heroine, a young Dowager Queen desperate to find her own place after her husband’s death.  Can she heal the beast and can the beast heal her?  It’s a fairy tale, so of course they can.

Bad Boy Billionaires

Never Seduce a Sheikh by Jackie Ashenden

Fact of life, romance readers love a bad boy, and if he’s a rich bad boy?  Well, that’s like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup—the best of both worlds.  In Never Seduce a Sheikh by Jackie Ashenden, the heroine, the newly minted CEO of the family oil business travels to the Middle East to negotiate with the hero for his country’s oil rights.  She’s a woman operating in a man’s world, and he’s a man looking to heal his country after his father’s tyrannical rule.  Ashenden explores what is, at times, an uncomfortable power dynamic in this romance – with the heroine being at a disadvantage early on.  However, over the course of the story, the heroine experiences personal growth, acknowledging an ugly past, and finally seeing that she must stop running or she’ll be held hostage by it forever.  As she grows, the hero retreats – having to acknowledge his own ugly past and accepting the fact that while he’s chastising the heroine for running away, that’s exactly what he is doing.  What starts out as a story about two people who seem on completely uneven ground develops into a romance between two people who, shockingly, have a lot in common. 

Emotion is the great human equalizer and it’s the genre’s greatest strength.  It’s why the genre appeals to a wide, diverse audience.  No matter our racial or ethnic background, no matter our class, no matter our standing in society, we can all relate to feelings of alienation, vulnerability, happiness, sadness, love and hate.  While the sheikh romance will never outrun its history, and will continue to be problematic for a great many readers and authors, like all things within the genre it has moved forward.  Like billionaires, Doms, dukes and cowboys, sheikhs will always have their place in the genre.  It’s up to the keepers of the genre to ensure that he, as well as readers and authors, acknowledge the baggage and make strides to not repeat our mistakes.

Editor's Note: The title of this post has been changed. 

Learn more about or order a copy of the books mentioned in this post:

The Sheik by E.M. Hull
The Widow and the Sheikh by Marguerite Kaye
 Bound to the Warrior King, Maisey Yates
Never Seduce a Sheikh by Jackie Ashenden

H&H Editor Picks:

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