‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a young adult fantasy novel that truly embodies its genre. It features all of the standard tropes and characters reminiscent of those from many other novels – but for all of that, it’s a highly enjoyable read and proof that novels don’t have to do something different to be great fun.
Amani Al-Hiza grew up in the backwater town of Dustwalk. She’s a gunslinger, and a good one – with near-perfect aim – but she knows she’ll never be able to escape, instead winding up either married to a local boy or dead. Her family dreams of making an advantageous match, while Amani desperately tries to save enough money to pay for a train ticket to her cousin in the city. Enter Jin, a strange – but handsome – foreigner on a mythical horse, who might just be the escape route she’s always dreamt of. Suddenly, Amani’s thrust into the middle of a rebellion and grappling with desert magic she previously took to be a myth.
Amani is a bundle of cliches – an orphan in a small town who dreams of escape, a strong heroine fighting against a patriarchal society – but she’s undeniably a likeable and fun protagonist. Her dreams are relatable, and whilst she’s exceptionally skilled she also makes a lot of mistakes and has a great deal of naivety. She also has a fiery temper and a smart mouth which constantly gets her into trouble. It’s impossible not to root for her and get drawn into her journey.
Jin, equally, is the classic handsome stranger who comes to rescue the heroine – even if the heroine is more than capable of rescuing herself. He’s a mysterious figure, but fortunately Alwyn Hamilton reveals just enough details to make him into a three-dimensional character rather than simply a plot device. I’m not the biggest fan of his relationship with Amani – the development is rushed, always a risk in a shorter fantasy novel – but Jin himself is a nice character with clear potential for future books.
The setting and world-building is where ‘Rebel of the Sands’ stands out from its peers. Inspired by a mixture of Middle Eastern mythology and the US Wild West, it’s set in the desert nation of Maraji. There are towns with weapons factories and shooting competitions in local taverns, but there’s also the desert – the home of vengeful spirits and skinwalkers and other things which go bump in the night. The intersection works perfectly and the magic feels right at home amongst the more traditional Western influences. There are no in-depth explanations, but this is the first book in a series so that wouldn’t be expected at this stage.
Overall, ‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a solid young adult fantasy novel that exemplifies all of the tropes of the genre done well. If you’re looking for an easy but enjoyable fantasy book, this might just be the one for you.
Published by Faber & Faber
Paperback: February 4th 2016