“Sheik of Mars” by Ben Wheeler is pure fun: Nothing less and sometimes even just a little bit more.
The plot is dead simple: The protagonist, the current Prince of Mars, marries the love of his life, the beautiful Zira, but on the day of his marriage the degenerate son of the Sheik of Mars kidnaps his wife and brings her to his personal harem. It’s up to our protagonist, his best friend Ibrahim, and his servant the swarthy eunuch to rescue Zira and escape the Palace of the Sheik of Mars alive.
The absolute best thing Mr. Wheeler accomplishes in this book is atmosphere. The obvious influence in the book is “1001 Arabian Nights”, and sure enough the main story is itself a story within a story, in true “Arabian Nights” fashion (at one point, briefly, we actually get three layers deep). Mr. Wheeler capture the Arabesque flavor flawlessly, and keeps it up throughout the novel.
Especially well done are his descriptions of the Sheik’s palace. Mr. Wheeler manages to deftly balance on a difficult tightrope, making the palace grandiose and magnificent while simultaneously being degenerate and horrifying. His portrayal of the Sheik’s harem really gets to the heart of the bleakness and soul-crushing humiliation that makes up the daily lives of the slaves
What elevates the book to another level is its theme of Christian redemption. The final confrontation between our hero and the real villain of the book, the son of the Sheik, avoids anticlimax with its incorporation of Christian themes of forgiveness and respect of valid authority, even when that authority is an enemy. The personal growth of the protagonist into a man who is willing to offer mercy to his worst enemy feels believable and earned after the incredible ordeal he’s managed to survive. This theme is what elevates the story a cut above your average rescue/vengeance story (though even if that’s all it was, you’d still be able to say it’s executed in style).
“The Sheik of Mars” isn’t perfect, of course. I thought that there were too many run-on sentences and I was sometimes frustrated by the lack of use or overuse of commas, of all things. The characters are very lightly sketched, and the protagonist just barely avoids being a cardboard cutout thanks to the incorporation of that theme of Christian forgiveness at the end of the tale.
But the pace is zippy, the actions scenes are exciting, and the atmosphere and style is rich and entertainingly engrossing. The straightforward story is elevated from some well-executed serious themes and a sense that the whole story has weight; it’s serious, the stakes are real. As far as debut novels go this one marks Ben Wheeler as a guy to watch out for.