This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase what is discussed. I will receive a small commission from the sale.Rebel of the Sands (Rebel of the Sands, #1)
Written by Alwyn Hamilton
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers
Published on March 8th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Buy on Amazon, on Book Depository, or on Barnes & Noble
She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.
Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there's nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can't wait to escape from.
Destined to wind up "wed or dead," Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she'd gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan's army, with a fugitive who's wanted for treason. And she'd never have predicted she'd fall in love with him... or that he'd help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is.
With her first novel, Alwyn Hamilton sends us to a fantastic land of deserts and demons, magic and rebellion. Rebel of the Sands is one of those very rare books I couldn’t put down until I reached the last page… but that probably needed some work on the mythology and a good sensitivity reader.
The book’s cover promises a female lead halfway between Star Wars‘ Rey and The Hunger Games‘ Katniss, which is both my jam and a little bit cringy, because I would rather the characters to stand out for themselves instead of being compared to others. Especially when the comparison to Rey only comes from the desert setting, which… is reaching, just a little bit. I feel like The Horse and His Boy would have been a more accurate comparison, but maybe that’s just me.
Still, Amani is a compelling character in her own rights, and following her story is made easy by the quick pace of the storyline and by how easy it is to identify with her (but more on that later). She teams up with Jin, more or less against her wish, and is thrown into this world of rebellion and magic she knows very little about.
I will say that all the characters in this book are amazing and it’s nice to meet them. None of them are white, which is always a plus when writing a book whose mythology is based on a non-white real-life culture, and I was especially excited to see a non-binary character being introduced, something that doesn’t happen often enough, especially in fantasy books.
When I started reading the book, I thought I knew exactly who Jin was, so the actual reveals about his identity were a nice plot twist that I (almost!) didn’t see coming. He’s an amazing character too, probably because I’m always a sucker for boys with tattoos. We all have our weaknesses, after all.
That being said… The storyline goes fast. Too fast, sometimes. We jump from Amani and Jin antagonising each other to them being friends very suddenly, since the storyline plays fast and loose with time jumps. It leaves very little time for actual character development, and instead you have to rely on what the narrator feeds you… Show, don’t tell. First right of writing, come on! The last battle in particular feels really rushed, and could have benefited from more time spent on it. Instead, its fast pace leaves the reader confused, which is never good. In the same vein, the explanation behind the dormant Djin powers is really weak, and hand-waved a little too quickly.
And although it didn’t strike me at first when I was reading the book, some reviews pointed out to me how terrible the world-building is, especially when it comes to women and to the portrayal of Arabic cultures and societies. The world-building makes several references to what is obviously this universe’s equivalent of Islam, with prayers through the day, yet the characters are seen getting drunk all the time, to the point of becoming dangerous. (Alcohol consumption, of course, is prohibited for Muslim people.) Not only that but the society is also extremely sexist. I understand that there would be no plot without it, but in that case it means your plot needs reworking. The misogyny in this book goes from cringy (the current society is sexist to make that other dude look good, cause he respects women!) to completely uncomfortable (what do you mean, Amani’s uncle is fine and dandy turning her from abuse victim to wife if he has to?). It just feels like a cheap cop out.
While it is not as unacceptable as whatever the hell Nemesis was trying to be, Rebel of the Sands could have benefited from a better world-building that doesn’t rely on islamophobic stereotypes. It is always nice to focus and take inspiration from different mythologies and not to just recycle the same Greek/Roman stuff all over again but… It is also painfully obvious that this book was written by a white woman. And I wish it’d been written with more care for the actual cultures it draws inspiration from.
All in all, Rebel of the Sands is a nice read, and a quick one at that, but it contains very problematic elements that cannot be so easily ignored.