A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: A romantic fairytale for adults with a dash of mystery in which our damaged protagonist gets his
prince sheik Tuareg tribal leader in the end. Escapism at its best.
Blurb: When photographer Leon Davis takes a job tracking down the nearly-extinct Zanzibar leopard, he isn’t expecting to fall in love with the mysterious and sexy Tuareg tribal leader, Ibrahim Ag Akhamok. Ibrahim has his own secrets, and he knows more than he lets on about the leopard. And what about Piers, the murdered photographer that Leon replaced? Until Leon discovers what Piers was doing in Zanzibar, and who killed him, he can’t face his own demons – and he can’t earn the love of the powerful and dangerous Tuareg.
Hunted by his past (figuratively or literally – it’s your choice to make), freelance photographer Leon Davis is not one to stay too long in one place. When his colleague is killed during the assignment in Zanzibar, Leon is sent to replace him, report on wildlife conservation efforts and, due to his brief stint in LAPD, investigate what happened to Piers. But, what really attracts Leon to the assignment is the possibility to find and photograph the legendary, presumably extinct Zanzibar leopard. What Leon finds on the beautiful island is more than he bargained for.
Whenever you read one of Sarah Black’s stories, you can count on the fact that she will transport you to the most unexpected place and, if you are anything like me, you’ll love every moment of it. The descriptions of Zanzibar in this novel are so vivid that you can smell it, taste it, hear it. Here is just one example:
Leon sat back and closed his eyes for a moment. It was hot, and he could feel a trickle of sweat running down his back, but the tangy ocean was so close, the air was sweet. The voices of the merchants and the women speaking in Swahili. The tiny, hopeful voices of the cats. The crack of claws. The metal of knives cutting down into succulent ripe fruit, hitting wooden cutting boards. The rough putt-putt of Vespas on the outskirts of the market. The faint scritch-scritch of rope sandals against the rock sidewalks. The taste of fresh mango and grilled lobster.
But, the descriptions aren’t what makes the image of Zanzibar so vivid to the reader and so seductive to Leon. The story is peopled with the most amazing secondary characters that added so many layers to the backdrop of Leon’s story that I absolutely have to start with them. They are crucial, I believe, to understand just how different Africa really is, how different the people, their morals, their values. Jelani and Sefu, two former police officers who now work for the mysterious Ibrahim, their wives Rachel and Aeeshah, Makhammad, grandfather of Ibrahim and Bazu, Sabah, Jewish-American housekeeper, Bazu, lively, flamboyant, beautiful teenager and, naturally, Ibrahim appeal to lonely and damaged Leon individually and as a tightly knit family and enable him to come to terms with his past and begin healing. Each of these characters added a different face to Zanzibar and Africa: dependable and wild, masculine and feminine, modern and traditional. The setup was perfect and it sucked me into the story and seduced me as much as it seduced Leon.
Leon lost his friend and mentor Charlie in a terrible event. The pain and rage this loss caused made him do the unthinkable. Now, Leon is estranged from his family, always on the move from one assignment to the next, never really connecting to anyone. Charlie is his only companion, in his dreams and his head, a reminder of what have happened, his only comfort. He is so burdened by the guilt that he can’t have sexual relationships with anyone, so he is a virgin at 26. He is so lonely that he has a habit of spilling his guts to complete strangers. Leon is also an artist, attracted to beauty, and, in spite of unsatisfying career in the police, to the mystery – of both Zanzibar and Ibrahim and, once he discovers what he was doing in Africa, the mystery of Piers’ murder. Ibrahim is more difficult to get to know. He is a successful businessman, a tribal leader, a man with a vision for his family’s chosen home, with the eyes set on the future. But, it is his unfailing loyalty to his family and his strong personality that attract Leon to him (not to mention his sexy bod!). He is also immeasurably patient with Leon even when he is pushing him to just where he wants him. A more private part of him remains mysterious until the end, but that worked well within this story and in this particular setting.
As you can see, mystery isn’t listed as a genre of this novel, although there is a mystery of sorts within the story. Truly, the resolution of the mystery was almost irrelevant for the big picture. The understanding of what happened and why and Leon’s interaction with the various characters is far more important than the identity of the murderer. Also, the murder victim is so repulsive that his disappearance from this world only made it a better place. The mystery subplot provided some of the darker moments in the story, especially once when it was revealed what Piers was doing in Africa. It also made Leon to face his past and motivated him to seek redemption and begin healing. The darker moments were balanced with humor and often colorful details. For example, Jelani is a Harry Bosch fan (which made me absurdly happy), Sefu and Aeeshah have a baby that remains nameless because they can’t agree on the name (Aeeshah’s choice is Tiberius, she is a Trekkie!), Bazu’s exuberance is simply fabulous.
There is a fairytale feeling to the story. In fact, there are many fairytale motifs in Tuareg: (self)banishment, dark past, quest, mysterious country, friend that offers support (in his ghostly or imagined shape), bad guy with no redeeming qualities, challenges and transformation, awards. The wonderful description of Zanzibar only added to this feeling. Even Leon acknowledges this:
It was all so unreal anyway, like something out of a romance, with the handsome sheik acting all sheik-like, and he, the silly virgin slave boy, bound to do his lord and master’s bidding…
I had very few niggles. The bad guys were one-dimensional, practically paper dolls. There were many things happening in the story and, in the end, I felt Leon and Ibrahim needed more page time on their own. There was a slight imbalance in their relationship which made me – not quite, but almost – uncomfortable at times. Maybe it was Ibrahim’s domineering personality, maybe the fact that this was Leon’s story above all, but I felt that more page time would have strengthen their connection in my eyes. There was also this misunderstanding between the two men about the leopards (no, I won’t tell you anything about the leopards) that was, in my opinion, resolved too quickly.
Tuareg is beautifully written, multilayered story and this review simply cannot touch every aspect of it (environmental or cultural for example). If Sarah Black decides to revisit these two men on their lovely island or tell us a story about Bazu one day, I will be the first in line to read it. Until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend you to experience her world on your own.