I’ve been a fantasy reader for almost as long as I’ve been a reader. Magic and curses… Sprawling invented worlds… Characters on quests… A good fantasy novel is escapism at its finest. Unfortunately fantasy does have some weaknesses, especially if you’ve read it a lot. It becomes predictable. Whilst not being completely revolutionary, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton takes some steps to escape the iron trappings of the genre.
Rebel of the Sands follows Amani, a motherless girl from the back end of a desert world, with sharp shooting skills and an even sharper tongue. Desperate to run away from Dustwalk and the unwanted prospect of marrying her uncle, Amani sneaks out after dark disguised as a boy for a shooting competition and lands herself in a world of problems. She meets Jin,a foreigner who also has a penchant for trouble, and finds her lot tied in with his as she tries to escape to the capital city to live with an unknown aunt. Life with Jin, however, soon reveals that she is more than just a desert girl trying to avoid the ghouls and the Gallans in her occupied country. She becomes a legend.
Your typical fantasy story has certain things that always appear. Magic obviously, but the genre also has a habit of being very Euro-centric, heavily influenced by the King Arthur mythology and the medieval period. I blame Tolkien – as the granddaddy of fantasy, most authors find themselves, consciously or unconsciously, emulating his styles and settings. He was the master of world-building and so the admiration is understandable. It just gets a little boring. If fantasy is escapism, do you really want to be escaping into something only a touch different from other worlds you know inside out? I’ve been searching for something that feels different for a while now and, after many different suggestions from my sister, I picked up Rebel of the Sands. I’m so glad I did. Rebel of the Sands is set in a vastly different world than your typical fantasy. It’s wild west mashing into Arabian nights. The desert is everywhere. The magic is heavily influenced by Eastern myth, with only touches of traditionally European lore here and there. And Amani is definitely no Frodo.
Set in the desert country of Maraji, Rebel of the Sands could barely be further from the usual fantasy setting. Years before the novel takes place, the now-Sultan killed his father and every brother older than him in a single night, securing the throne for himself but surrendering his country into an alliance with the Gallan. The Gallan are not like the Maraji people, being paler, more militarised, and incredibly magic-phobic. While the Maraji people hold some respect for the First Beings, like the Djinn or Buraqi, the Gallans wish only to destroy them and have no love for the desert country they occupy. As the novel progresses, you learn of more countries hovering on the edge of the desert world and the simmering tension increases. Add in the Rebel Prince Ahmed, an idealistic run-away son of the Sultan, more guns than any country should have, and a secret weapon, and you know that all out war cannot be far behind. It’s an immersive world that feels ancient but also fresh and new. The desert influences everything and, best of all, Hamilton has let it shape her characters.
The importance of Alwyn Hamilton’s characters builds slowly. Rebel of the Sands begins with only Amani, a girl with no importance, in a town with no importance. Everything is told from her point of view, which I initially found rather annoying because I’ve never been a huge fan of Western’s (or first person narratives) and her narrative voice is the strongest connection to that genre. Thankfully it soon smooths out as the novel gets going and the story is compelling enough that you can push past the initial annoyance. The great thing about Amani is that she starts off as all action. Her impulsiveness fits so well with the setting, moving primarily for survival. As her story moves on, however, and she meets more characters and her world expands, she begins to think things out more. Like many YA, Rebel of the Sands (and its sequel, Traitor to the Throne, which I’ll review shortly) does have some solid coming-of-age ties but it all moves so subtly that it’s only on reflection that you realise how Amani has matured. My one irritation with Amani as a character is that, in the end of the first novel, Hamilton does bend to a typical YA trope but I can at least appreciate the way it has gone unnoticed prior to its revelation. And it works really well in the sequel, which I loved, so I’m not going to complain.
Jin is the second main character introduced in Rebel of the Sands and, like Amani, he is initially only a foreign boy of little importance looking to earn a bit of money and then get out of Dustwalk. As the novel moves on, he shows Amani that there is more of the world than she had every imagined and more to him than he had ever admitted. He is also a rather impish character, quick to action and more amused than affected by her sharp tongue. Small but predictable spoiler here, but I also find Jin to be rather interesting as a love interest. He doesn’t come off as the typical good hero – he only really cares about a select few people, can be secretive, impulsive, and occasionally a bit of an ass – but he’s also not the brooding male that’s been at the centre of YA for so long. I do feel that Hamilton could develop him and his relationship with Amani more as it doesn’t always feel as all-encompassing as their actions show it to be but I enjoy the fact that he’s not like every other male lead in YA fantasy.
A big frustration with Rebel of the Sands is its structure. There are some parts that are noticeably weaker than others – not enough to make me stop reading but enough that I hesitated before picking up the second book. Unlike most novels, it is the middle of Rebel of the Sands that makes it work. The middle of the novel feels engaging, exciting, and you’re caught up with Amani learning just how big the world is and learning to care about other people. The first section, as I mentioned before, has an engaging enough build-up but is comparatively weak. I think it’s because the fantasy element is mostly absent, only told to you by Amani, but eventually you get to see one of the First Beings and learn that the stories are worth paying attention to. The end is also, unfortunately, comparatively weak but that is so much down to its predictability. The story goes from doing things so different from other fantasy novels to falling into the typical pitfalls of the narrative and this annoyed me no end. I genuinely didn’t know if I was going to continue reading the series because I didn’t know if I could stand to go over the same kind of special-character narrative again. The sequel, Traitor to the Throne, is so much better though so I’m really glad I did continue.
My quest for exciting an YA narrative that break out of the typical genre pitfalls led me to dangerous desert of Rebel of the Sands. It breaks many of the usual conventions and is an engaging and immersive read, worlds apart from your usual euro-centric fantasy. While its ending is disappointingly familiar, it is a pretty solid start for a really interesting series.