In her excellent debut fantasy novel, Rebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton sets us in a depressed desert village of miners and rough characters. A wild blend of outlaw western and Middle-eastern based mythos with a dash of political intrigue, Rebel of the Sands engaged from the opening chapter to the closing pages, with a blend of well-drawn characters, magic, adventure, and a fast-paced, twisting plot.
Amani, the narrator, is an orphan raised by an aunt and uncle who want nothing to do with her except marry her off, or in the case of the uncle, marry her. Determined to leave, Amani disguises herself as a boy and attempts to win money in a shooting competition. She ends up competing with a stranger and the house champion, only to find out the house fixed the game. The two escape, leaving destruction in their wake, but end up separated, only to reunite when the injured stranger shows up in Amani’s shop. He tells her his name is Jin, and she hides him from the Sultan’s guards — led by one of the Sultan’s sons — who are searching for him.
The first hint of magic comes when Amani helps capture a buraqui — a magical sand horse that can be turned to flesh by a girl and tamed by using iron to prevent it from turning again to sand and copper to make it obedient.
A local village boy attempts to blackmail Amani into marriage. When she refuses, he turns her into the Sultan’s soldiers, who demand to know where the stranger is and torture her friend. Before the soldiers can hurt Amani, the stranger rescues her riding the buraqui and they escape into the desert.
The fast and furious pace of Hamilton’s opening chapters is, for the most part, maintained over the course of the novel and Amani and Jin are pursued across the desert, with nothing going the way they want. Bit by bit, Jin’s heritage and alliances are revealed and Amani must decide if she should strike out on her own and follow her original plan or join him.
Hamilton has created an entertaining, at times sardonically amusing heroine in Amani. Readers will want to cheer her on as she encounters everything from malevolent mythical creatures, an occupying army who wish to kill the off-spring of human’s and djinn, encounters with other powerful magical forces, the Sultan’s soldiers out to crush a rebellion, to their secret weapon, capable of destroying entire towns. Amani, despite the plot-heavy events swirling around her, never feels one dimensional, helpless, or the opposite — the YA invulnerable badass. Through a significant portion of the novel, Amani travels as a boy which turns out to be a metaphor for her own journey of self-discovery.
The interaction between Amani and Jin is, by turns, snarky, protective, vulnerable, and ultimately one of attraction. While somewhat expected in YA, this match comes off as less contrived than many others. One strength of Rebel of the Sands is the well-developed characters and the relationships between the various characters. Beyond Amani and Jin, Hamilton populates the novel with a diverse group of secondary characters and despite a significant number of them, they are unique and memorable because Hamilton provided depth to each of them. The one flaw for me lay in the villains. With one notable exception, they bordered on stock characters. Granted, Amani’s interactions with them often occurred in fast-paced scenes, but Hamilton missed opportunities throughout to add depth to them.
Hamilton world-building is top-notch. The blistering pace of the novel never becomes weighted down by exposition, yet she seeds details throughout the early portion of the novel that bear fruit later, ensuring that no event stands out as improbable and no plot points leave the reading feeling cheated. The novel ended where it should, yet provided enough fodder for a sequel.
Rebel of the Sands entertained and while not perfect, deserved the accolades it has received. I look forward to the second novel.