Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands
(Rebel of the Sands, Book 1)
Alwyn Hamilton
Hardcover, 320 pages
Viking Books for Young Readers, March 8, 2016
Fantasy, Feminism, Romance, Young Adult Fiction
Source: Barnes & Noble bookstore

Synopsis: The New York Times bestselling novel by the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Debut Author of 2016, published in 15 countries!

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic.  For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.

Amani Al’Hiza is all three.  She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.

Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.

Rebel of the Sands reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally, at long last, embracing her power.

This novel certainly lived up to all the hype before its release date! I was also happy to find out that, behind that beautiful, simply stunning cover, there was a greatly enjoyable story!

Like any skillful fiction writer, Hamilton knows that one of the keys to having readers fall in love with your novel is to write compelling, dynamic characters that literally live in the minds of these readers. She has certainly done that here! All of her characters and their emotions felt so real, that this novel quickly became a memorable one for me! 

Amani Al'Hiza, the female protagonist, is too vibrant and dangerously intelligent for the society she was born into. In that society, women are commodities, bartered and given into marriage according to the dictates and whims of their fathers or other male relatives. Polygamy abounds, and is, of course, engaged in only by the men. Vividly reminiscent of extremist Muslim culture (except that women are not required to wear anything resembling a hijab), this is a heavily patriarchal society in which a young woman like Amani cannot hope to be her own person.

So she risks everything to escape from the town she was born in, leaving with only the clothes on her back, as well as her trusty gun. And the clothes on her back are those of a boy. This is the only way she can hope to evade capture, and a humiliating return to an existence she loathes. Much to her surprise and initial dismay, she soon becomes embroiled in a revolution she had not even known had been boiling in the hot desert sands....

Amani is a highly skilled gunslinger, something that would have gotten her into heaps of trouble, had her family known about it. But she has trained herself in secret, and is counting on her shooting expertise in order to navigate the dangers she will encounter in pursuit of her ultimate goal -- to live life on her own terms, and no one else's.  

Jin is an equally compelling character. He is supremely confident, yet not arrogant. Of course, he's very easy on the eyes, especially Amani's. And yes, there's an air of danger and mystery about him. This is a common romance trope, although, in this novel, it's also used in the interests of the overall plot. Jin sees the same qualities in Amani, though, and is equally drawn to her. I love the nickname he gives her -- "The Blue-Eyed Bandit"! Romance is not a main focus of this novel, however. In fact, it's only hinted at, and takes a back seat to all the action. And there's plenty of that! Scenes change rapidly from Dustwalk, to a desert journey, to jumping on and off trains, to an oasis where Amani discovers just who Jin really is, and how his story ties in with the ultimate destiny of Miraji.

And so Amani, in quest of herself, ends up becoming a rebel of the sands in more ways than one. Her personality actually undergoes an evolution, as she gradually begins to focus on the needs of her country, which end up meshing with her own. Paradoxically, she does find herself in the process, and it's an interesting one. This is perhaps the most important element in the novel, and I love the way Hamilton interwove it with other plot elements.

There are actually several themes in this book, such as the overarching one of finding one's ultimate purpose. The other themes are the idealistic search for justice, sibling rivalry, the place of religion and magic in the lives of the characters, and the tension between self-interest versus altruism. All of these themes are perfectly interrelated and given dramatic form. As I read, I became totally immersed in them, right along with the characters.

The setting and action are totally riveting. The changing landscapes of the novel are vividly described, as well as the magical characters -- the Djinn, the magical, sand-formed horses, the various characters with strange paranormal powers. And encompassing it all is the ominous feel of the ever-present desert with hidden mysteries of its own.... In fact, the desert becomes a character, too, as we see its shifting aspects that somehow mirror the characters' own moods.

There are at least two villains in this novel, but the reader does not find out about one of them right away, and indeed, the identity of this person is a bit of a surprise, and a rather sad one, too. This unfortunate surprise gave even more realism to the plot, as it's the type of thing that all too often happens in the real world.

The secondary characters are equally compelling, and I'm very glad that Hamilton took as much care with them -- although, of course, they're not as fully-developed -- as she did with the main ones. There's Shazad, a strong female in her own right, and the second-in-command of the rebel forces. There's Bahi, who is a sort of spiritual leader, but not in any conventional sense. And there are the several rebels with paranormal powers, such as shapeshifting and the ability to ignite fires at a moment's notice. 

The novel has a perfect balance of action and character development in the plot, along with observations on the religious and political aspects of life in the desert. Nothing is too heavy-handed, however. Hamilton never loses sight of the sheer, exhilarating adventure of it all, of the interplay between the individual characters in one-to-one situations, as well as in the bigger picture.

Summing up, this is a great fantasy/paranormal/adventure, as well as a coming-of-age read, with quite a bit of depth to it! And the totally kick-butt female protagonist will have readers cheering for her all the way! Feminism has never been so much fun, as well as serious business, paradoxically enough. I highly recommend this book to all fans of the above-mentioned genres, as well as those who enjoy reading about strong female heroes!


Alwyn Hamilton was born in Toronto and spent her childhood bouncing between Europe and Canada until her parents settled in France. She grew up in a small town there, which might have compelled her to burst randomly into the opening song from Beauty and the Beast were it not for her total tone-deafness. She instead attempted to read and write her way to new places and developed a weakness for fantasy and cross-dressing heroines. She left France for Cambridge University to study History of Art at King’s College, and then to London where she became indentured to an auction house. She has a bad habit of acquiring more hardcovers than is smart for someone who moves house quite so often.
Alwyn's New York Times-bestselling debut, the YA fantasy Rebel Of The Sands, was published by Viking Children's Books in the U.S. and Faber Children's Books in the U.K., and in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Israel, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Iran. Its sequel, Traitor To The Throne, was published in spring, 2017. The third volume, Hero at the Fall, was released in the U.S. on March 6, 2018. Alwyn was named the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award winner for Best Debut Author.



  1. Great review Maria. As always, your writing and descriptions are so well done.

    This sounds original as it sounds like this contains the elements of a Western, an Arabian Knights type story and contemporary fantasy. I never heard of this kind of story incorporating gunslingers and trains before. I think that this is a very creative touch. The Patriarchal Islamic society seems adds a realistic and important element to the story.

    1. Hi, Brian!

      Thanks so much for the compliment!! <3 <3

      Oh, this is very original, indeed! I had never heard of anything like this before! The combination of a Western-style setting with the Arabian Nights is totally fascinating! The religion mentioned in this novel is not Islam, as Allah is never mentioned, but it's very similar. And it IS patriarchal. Poor Amani HAS to escape, or she will be married off to some old guy her family approves of, and be subject to all of his commands for the rest of her life!

      I totally recommend this book to you, Brian! I know you don't usually read YA, but there books in this genre that are not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, as well!!

      Thanks for the great comment!! <3 :)

  2. I absolutely love this series - I call this desert-based fantasy part of the Sand and Sorcery fantasy sub-genre:)). Thank you for reminding me what a great book it is with your lovely review:)

    1. Hi, Sara!

      Yes, this is DEFINITELY an exciting series!! I need to read the next two books!

      Oh, what an interesting name you have for this series, too! LOVE it!!

      Thank you so much for the wonderful compliment and lovely comment!! <3 <3 <3 :) :) :)

  3. I loved this book so much! And I can't quite believe I haven't read the second book yet (although I do own it.) And from what I've seen so far the author is really nice and awesome as well. :D

    1. Hi, Stephanie!

      YAAAAAY!!! SO glad you enjoyed it, too!! :) :)

      I can't believe I haven't read the second and third books, either! And I do own BOTH of them! Lol.

      From the author's pic, I can tell she's a SUPER nice person! It would be SO nice to meet her in person, I'm sure!

      Thanks for the lovely comment!! <3 <3 <3 :) :) :)

  4. Nice! I like that she's a gunslinger, and the djinn got my attention too. Love the mythological touch. Glad this was good!!!

    1. Hi, Greg!

      YEAH!!! I like that she's a gunslinger, too! Sounds like the Old West in the desert, right? Lol.

      I, too, loved that djinns are mentioned! Yes, this is certainly a nice mythological touch! I TOTALLY enjoyed this book!! Now I need to get to the other two! Lol.

      Thanks for the nice comment!! <3 :)

  5. I loved this one, too, Maria - I dubbed it one of the Sand and Sorcery books that came out and it was one of my favourite reads of the year. As yet, I haven't caught up with the last book in the series - but I'm looking forward to getting hold of it:)


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