Series: Rebel of the Sands #1
Published by Penguin on March 8. 2016
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 review is going to be frustrating to write. So far, all of my GoodReads friends have adored Rebel of the Sands, and it comes on the strong recommendation of Wendy. But I was never swept up by the story, or as wholly captivated by the world and the romance as I quite wanted to be.
I’ll address some of the things that I think prevented from being fully invested at the start of this review. Amani is a gunslinger (awesome!) and a girl struggling to get by in Dustwalk, her unfriendly desert community. For as long as she’s known anything, Amani has been desperate to escape. This is historical fantasy that blends a Middle Eastern-based setting with the tone and feel of an American Western. And it just didn’t work for me. I found the language (It’s folksy and Western. Like, “I reckon” and a town named “Dustwalk” when all other towns have Middle Eastern sounding names) extremely disorienting against the historical Middle Eastern setting. There is something about this that really clashed for me. This might not at all be a problem for you. and I hope it isn’t!
Additionally, I felt uncomfortable about the community Amani is from being portrayed as a stereotypical “backwards” and oppressive culture. There is a scene in which Amani narrates for us the hanging of a woman a few years prior after foreign soldiers took “too much of a shine to her.” The narration is not not horrified, but it also doesn’t actively reflect on how serious and awful this is. Amani is also soon to be forcibly married to her despised uncle as yet another addition to his harem. I get that there must be a reason that Amani is desperate to escape. Dustwalk has to be terrible. But, I think when you are writing outside of your culture there is a very fine line that must be minded regarding representation and appropriation. I am not necessarily saying that this book is appropriative, but I am saying the representation of Dustwalk left me with an unfortunate discomforting feeling that I couldn’t shake for the rest of the story.
Perhaps these factors, unfairly or not, were what prevented from being able to really emotionally connect with Amani. She’s a good character. She’s smart, capable, and not afraid to make selfish choices if they’re the right ones. Hamilton’s writing is strong, and Amani’s will to survive and to thrive is palpable. But as much as I liked her, I never felt like I knew her. The same goes for Jin, Amani’s travel partner and love interest. He’s a likable character. A bit of a rogue, has an air of mystery, has some good banter with Amani…but he keeps himself at arm’s length (for a reason). And so, while I could see why there was a romantic connection there, I didn’t feel it myself as a reader. This lack of emotional connection to the characters meant that, as this book is journey fantasy, it’s just not really a Kim read. I’m not a fan of journey fantasy, unless I have a previously established emotional connection with the characters, and that’s not the case here.
As I said, the writing is very good. Hamilton does a solid job of building the world without unceremoniously dumping the information onto readers. I felt completely transported to the book’s desert setting, and I enjoyed the gradual introduction of the story’s mythos regarding djinn and other fantastical creatures. This information is introduced organically either by Amani’s reminiscing or the telling of old tales by the campfire. Magical!
Getting back to journey fantasy, another reason why this book didn’t really click with me is that the fantasy elements aren’t really a part of the book until about 60% in. Up until that point it’s gunslingin’ girl and partner escaping into the unknown dangers of the vast desert. Some action happens, but the plot didn’t really pick up for me until more than halfway through the book. At this point, an enjoyable and well rounded cast of characters are introduced that added some very welcome life to the story for me. I will also give the story points for truly bringing the action at the end. The final 100 pages are an adrenaline-laden, thrill ride.
I’ll finish up by addressing two final points: the romance and the plot reveals. Like I said above, I liked Amani and I liked Jin, and I get why there’s a connection between them. Jin is cute, and he teases and clearly has a good heart. But he does keep Amani at arm’s length (for plot reasons). Amani even acknowledges herself at multiple points that she doesn’t know Jin all that well. She also acknowledges the times he lies to her and makes decisions for her, and I give her props for being angry about it, but she never really processes or sorts through those feelings and thoughts. There’s teasing, and there are adventures through the desert, but there aren’t a whole lot of the substantial, deep conversations that I prefer to see happen between two romantic leads.
Finally, I think I’m just a little bit impatient with predictable plot twists. I mean, can you guess the “powerful truth of who she really is?” If you just start reading the book, yes you can. View Spoiler » Yes, Amani is a Djinni’s daughter with special powers. The powers are pretty cool! How did Amani go her whole life without knowing this? The iron from her guns (iron keeps magical beings weak). Shortly after this revelation, Amani realizes what a powerful connection she has to the desert sand: ”I felt it. Like I always had, without knowing that I was. The desert all around me, the sand like a living thing, calling to me, begging me to use it. To be part of it.” Right, calling to you in the way that has left you literally wanting nothing to do but run away from it for your entire life? Okay.That sounds fake, but okay. « Hide Spoiler Although, I will say points for 1. View Spoiler » leaving the childhood best friend behind in a terrible situation that will probably result in him hating Amani. I wonder if we’ll see the repercussions of that. « Hide Spoiler And 2. View Spoiler » having the guts to kill off a wonderful character, a member of the rebel ensemble–who also happened to be my favorite character. Boooo « Hide Spoiler
Anyway, as you can see this is all very personal to me. I predict that you, like the vast majority of readers already, will love this book if you like bad ass gunslinging girls, bantery love interests, and magical, mythical but low key historical fantasy.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.