Author: Alwyn Hamilton
“Tell me that’s how you want your story to go and we’ll write it straight across the sand.”
Rebel in the Sands is a young adult fantasy by debut author Alwyn Hamilton, a globe-trotting Canadian who can list Cambridge graduate amongst her credentials. It follows Amani, a young girl stuck in a dead end town who longs to escape to the fabled city of Izman she heard her mother speak of so often. There, she believes, life will be better. So, prompted by talk of marriage, Amani sneaks out disguised as a boy and spends all her earnings on entry to a gunfight. The prize? Enough money to buy a ticket straight to Izman and never look back. But, as tends to happen in the first few chapters, nothing goes to plan and she ends up running away with a mysterious boy on a horse-like creature straight from campfire myth.
The cover. It’s gorgeous! Which is pretty much the main reason I bought this book in the first place. Touché, cover designer. Touché.
That opening. What an opening! This scene sold me, its potential helping me push through the middle section.
Amani. I loved her character. She wasn’t always nice, or good, or kind, but she was consistent. She developed in such a way that she was still recognisably herself at the end, just a lot more selfless.
The buraqi. I love horses. Magical sand horses? Sign me up!
The myths. This story, like all stories of rebellion really, is so tied up in the myths of the past, the stories which shape the nation’s identity. Rebel in the Sands covers a number of myths and while the telling sometimes borders on info-dumping, I think Hamilton balances the exposition and action well.
The romance. It was sweet and fun and a little bit sassy. Most of all, while there was insta-attraction, there was no instalove. The romance developed at a slow, steady burn which made the climax so much sweeter.
The prose. I really enjoyed Hamilton’s style and there are some beautiful phrases and passages scattered throughout.
Worldbuilding. Rebel in the Sands is set in a desert nation sort of around the real world equivalent of the mid-19th century, I think, based on the mix of technologies available. There are trains and factories and medicine in the form of white pills. There’s also leather-winged nightmares, giant rocs, djinni and the fabled buraqi, though these creatures are now rarely seen. Two aspects of the worldbuilding really got my goat. First, was the demdjii, the offspring of djinni and mortal. This is really just a personal little gripe but it feels to me that the dem- part of demdjii came from the Greek demi as in demi-god, and my brain just wouldn’t shut up about the linguistic clash in the word.
The second issue is, I think, far more serious. It was what made me consider giving up around a third of the way in. Everyone is Dustwalk, the town Amani comes from, is depicted as backwards and misogynistic, and therefore not worth a moment of our special snowflake Amani’s time or respect. The problem doesn’t lie so much in these characteristics as in the stereotypes it perpetrates of the cultures it draws from. The depictions of clothing, family structure, even mythology, draw heavily on middle eastern stereotypes. Layering the child-marriage and polygamy aspects onto a culture which is acknowledged to be influenced by the middle east is just lazy and also, really insensitive. It compounds the negative stereotypes that people from these cultures are often framed within in our own world.
Amani. Yes, I know. She’s in the positives list. But, hey, por qué no los dos? Amani suffers from a concerning case of Strong Female CharacterTM. Amani believes every other girl in Dustwalk is too stupid or unimaginative to question the hugely misogynistic norms of the town, to dream of more, to desire something other than what they are told to desire. Every character she comes across around her age either love her (the boys) or dislike/distrust her (the girls). The only boy who doesn’t want to marry her (seriously, she gets like three proposals in about a chapter. Calm it down…) is General Naguib, but that’s because he’s EvilTM. The girls she comes across beyond Dustwalk fall into two categories – deadly and suspicious, or weak and abused.
The middle. This is always the most difficult section to finesse but unfortunately, I felt that the middle really sagged. There was little momentum and little reason to keep reading. The stakes didn’t seem high enough, urgent enough, to warrant spending my time on it.
I’m glad I pushed through. Past all the misogynistic nonsense and cringe-worthy stereotypes bogging down the first third to half of the book, the story bloomed to a lovely, poignant conclusion.
Would I read the sequel? Maybe. Should you read it? I’ll leave that ball in your court. Obviously, these are my own opinions on the book. You may see different things, read events in other ways. That is, after all, the joy of reading.
Though the words we read may be the same, the story never is.