Rating: 4 stars
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Oxford University arenologist Arthur Somersby tragically lost his partner, Andrew, in an aviation accident in the Arctic. Despite the passing of time, Arthur still grieves as he finds constant reminders of the life he shared with the man he loved. All that gets upended when Arthur’s boss at the university tells him in no uncertain terms that Arthur must travel to Oman to relieve his colleague, Dr. Cavendish. In reality, Arthur is replacing the man, who has reportedly made a one-way journey into the desert. Unaccustomed to travel and very ill prepared for a research position in the Middle East, Arthur haphazardly packs a single suitcase and embarks a ship bound for Oman. Arthur is standing on the ship’s deck with the unforgiving midday sun beating down on him when he realizes that he may know all there is to know about sand, but he is desperately underprepared for an assignment in the desert itself. He hopes his time in Oman will be as brief as humanly possible.
Arthur’s resolve to return to England only solidifies when Cavendish’s former assistant gives Arthur a perfunctory tour of the minuscule research space/living quarters in a dormitory with no air conditioning. Resigned to being miserable for the foreseeable future, Arthur decides to explore the dunes when he nearly collides with another vehicle. In the wake of the near fender bender, Arthur meets a kind and rather attractive local veterinarian named Tariq. When Tariq learns about Arthur’s circumstances at the dormitory, he offers Arthur a more comfortable place to stay: his own home. Tariq’s kindness and beauty spark a romantic interest Arthur he thought he would never find again. As Arthur and Tariq get to know one another, Arthur relearns what it means to live and slowly begins to realize he still remembers what it is to love. Tariq’s father, however, is very traditional and makes it clear that he does not accept homosexuality. Arthur cannot deny he is falling for Tariq, but he must do some deep soul searching to learn if he can commit to a man with a family, a religion, and a culture that simply is not ready to acknowledge the love that has grown between him and Tariq.
Under the Arabian Sky is a contemporary romance from author Robin Knight and is part of the multi-author Love Abroad collection. Arthur, our main character and narrator, is an academic at Oxford whose specialty is arenology, or the study of sand. Over the course of the book, he meets and falls in love with Tariq, who is a native of Oman, a vet by trade, a practicing Muslim, and gay. Overall, I feel this story is mostly a feel-good get-together book featuring an opposites attract couple. The general dynamic between a Arthur and Tariq was good; Arthur is the white Western character on a somewhat forced journey (that turns into a journey of self-discovery) and Tariq is a Middle Eastern love interest who reflects and embodies modern social changes even in places with customs seen as more strict compared to Western ones. That said, I did feel that the big climactic scene at the end veers a bit too close to white savior territory for my tastes, and just didn’t fully work given all that we learned about Arthur.
I did enjoy seeing how Arthur’s still deep feelings about the passing of his last partner came shining through at various points. For much of the first part of the book when Arthur learns he must go to Oman, there were many, many poignant snippets of Arthur remembering his life with his deceased partner. Of course, these are deeply bittersweet details, but I think they also help show how deep Arthur’s capacity for love is, too. And rather than an info dump or a flashback—which I don’t think would have fit with the flow of the story—Knight instead peppers one or two sentences throughout the text that contain very specific, very intimate details about some aspect of Arthur and Andrew’s life. It was a great balance of explaining where Arthur is at emotionally, while paving the way for a new love interest to sweep in and show Arthur was love is.
Another very curious, and frankly intriguing, element of the story was the mysterious, macabre non-presence of Dr. Cavendish, who simply walked into the desert one day and never returned. I loved that the author has included this absolute mystery. I loved that it was simply unknowable as to why Cavendish did this and that, throughout the entire book, the specifics of his disappearance remain unsolved. Even better is the fact that it’s Cavendish’s disappearance that triggers Arthur having to go to Oman, so it ties in nicely with the machinations of the plot to get grieving Arthur to the desert.
The relationship between Arthur and Tariq has something of a rapid start. I found it a little odd to have had such a distinct picture of Arthur absolutely still mourning Andrew only to see him meet Tariq and, for all intents and purposes, virtually immediately feel sexual attraction. Without much of a buffer between “I’ll never love again” and “lustily watching sweat drip down Tariq’s neck,” I thought the early signs of physical attraction between Arthur and Tariq were kind of awkward. Their body language and the physical cues they give off definitely convey something of a DTF vibe, but they still haven’t established that they’re both gay, let alone looking for any kind of companionship. Once they come clean with each other about their feelings, however, I thought the romance developed much more organically where Tariq took the lead in demonstrating varying levels and intensity of his attraction.
Overall, Under the Arabian Sky is a mostly feel-good get-together. If you enjoy stories about characters who get second chances with someone new or reading about characters finding love despite disparate cultural and social backgrounds, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. Tariq’s religion and culture are subtly woven into the story, but don’t feel like they steal the show; the focus is squarely on Arthur and Tariq’s love story. If you’re looking for a quick read with some surprisingly interesting characters and a bit of a love-at-first-sight romance that mellows into a slower burn, this may be a great book for you.