Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Published: February 4, 2016 by Faber & Faber (UK), March 8, 2016 by Viking Books for Young Readers (US)
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.
This book swept me away to the wilds of a magical desert land and left me breathless. A world of magic and sand and iron, a girl with a gun, and a rebellion brewing in the desert. It's fantastically imagined and beautifully written. Amani and Jin are unexpected partners from the start but when they find themselves thrown into a perilous journey together, they are perfectly matched to face the unknown. I loved Amani's story. She is honest and determined and sharp, not just in her shooting. She is a desert girl and Miraji's desert abounds with mysteries and magic. It's a thrilling read and well worth all of the praise it's garnered.
This is my first five star review on this blog! Rebel of the Sands was my most anticipated book of 2016 and I'm so happy that it did not disappoint. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of this book on Monday and it was amazing to see all of the excitement in person*.
I read quite a lot of YA fantasy these days - it is the genre I reach for when I want something fun and familiar. So often the stories are all quite familiar even upon first reading. Rebel of the Sands, however, felt new and fresh from the start. Amani is introduced as a young girl with a strong-will using her practical skills to escape a dead-end life in a dead-end town. She begins her journey without any great revelations about secret powers of destiny - she's just a girl with a gun, off to find a better life for herself. I so appreciated the opportunity to get to know a hero on her own terms. This honesty and authenticity of Amani's story becomes even more important as we learn of the even greater, more dangerous story that is lying in wait. A story tied to Jin, the fugitive she became entangled with from their first encounter during a shooting contest.
And yes, there is a burgeoning romance between Jin and Amani. It's perfectly tuned and well-written in their every scene together. It's a romance done right, never rushed or gratuitous. Two strangers, forced together in a dangerous flight from the angry powers that be, gain respect for each other, learn to work together, and begin to form a real connection. When we first meet Amani she is looking out for herself, singularly focused on her own goals. The growing attachment to Jin, first an alliance of convenience and then begrudgingly of choice, helps her to grow into a wider view of the world and her place in it. It's a romance that feels deserved, but of course, very importantly, it never lacks in swoony feelings.
The plot is carried along through the first half of the book by Amani and Jin's journey. Amani is determined to reach Izman, to find a better life in the city. She escapes Dustwalk with Jin's help, and they part ways only to find themselves thrown together again as they are chased off the train heading to Izman. Her plan ruined, Amani still goes forward with Jin with determination to find her bright future in Izman. There is political intrigue woven throughout the journey, especially as Jin's motivations are kept a mystery, but until she is faced with a heart-wrenching decision Amani is driven by her own dream for herself, not by the rebellion that is beginning to rise in the desert. The forward-motion of the plot pivots suddenly when Amani faces her decision, and it's a decision made only for love and friendship, nothing else. The development of the hidden plot, intertwined with Amani's personal journey and her relationship to Jin, is so cleverly wrought. Once I saw the whole story laid out - Amani, Jin, the rebellion, and the desert's magic - I was captivated.
The best fantasy is the kind that leaves you fascinated by a magical land. Hamilton has done this spectacularly well. The world grows and grows as Amani ventures farther and farther from her old life in Dustwalk. The magic of this unique land is rooted in evocative folklore of Djinni and other powerful mythical creatures. As Amani learns the truths behind the folklore, she begins to realise just how much power is hidden in the desert.
Rebel of the Sands is an amazing story. Utterly mesmerising. And as Amani tells us, Lying is a sin so you can take my word for it.
Have you read Rebel of the Sands? If not, I really hope you will!
* Alwyn is a friend of mine from book club and so I've had the pleasure of getting to know her personally before falling in love with her book. I don't know if I this means I can't claim full objectivity, but I have enough faith in my skill as a critical reader to recognise this book's originality and praiseworthiness beyond my personal attachment.