Genre: Fantasy, YA
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers on March 8, 2016
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a physical review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
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.
If you’ve ever found yourself disappointed by the lack of diversity – and often the presence of explicit racism – in classic shoot ‘em up Westerns, then you’ll rejoice at Alwyn Hamilton’s debut novel, REBEL OF THE SANDS.
Amani Al’Hiza has spent her whole life counting the seconds until she can get out of the dead-end desert town she grew up in, where all that waits for her is a life of drudgery and a future as one of her uncle’s wives. Clearly the girl needs to bust out of Dustwalk, and she boldly leaps when an opportunity arises in the form of a mysterious foreign boy named Jin. Amani learns that Jin is on the run, and that he’s clearly no friend to the Sultan of the foreign army occupying her country – needless to say the two get into some pretty fantastic scrapes as a result. For a girl who’s dying for adventure, Jin is the perfect companion.
Disguised as a boy, Amani accompanies Jin across the desert to the future she thought she always wanted. But when confronted with the realities of life under foreign rule and the waning popularity of her own Sultan, Amani must decide whether the future she imagined for herself is what she really wants…and whether that future can even exist under the current regime.
Alwyn Hamilton’s world building is really well done, combining the gun slinging and train hopping of traditional Westerns with the landscape and mythology of the Middle East. Amani’s upbringing in Dustwalk, the site of the country’s largest ammunitions factor, is credited with a good portion of her sharp-shooting abilities; this was a nice touch, as it explained why a young person would be a crack shot even if they’d never seen combat. When there’s an excess of bullets and a distinct lack of toys to play with, I guess kids are going to make use of what’s available: bullets. Kind of a scary thought!
The religious and political context of the story was well done too, with commentary on imperialism and the role of women in non-secular, devout societies throughout the book. One of my favourite aspects of REBEL OF THE SANDS was the friendship that developed between Amani and Shazad, another girl who’s unusual skills are considered distinctly unfeminine by her society, and whose life would’ve been completely different had she been born a boy. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you probably know that I love a great female friendship!
Unfortunately I did have some problems with this one, particularly during the last third of the story. The plot twists were visible a mile away and character development fell by the wayside in favour of reveals that didn’t surprise me. The world building that I loved so much in the first sections of the novel telegraphed the ending a bit too clearly for my liking! I also felt that because we spend so much time with Amani and Jin, the emotional impact of the secondary character’s story arcs wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
Overall though, still an enjoyable read and a great selection if you’re looking for a diverse novel for a Sunday spent in bed!