Book Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rebel of the Sands because of some mixed reviews that I’ve read online, but I really enjoyed the story and zipped right through the novel. Rebel of the Sands is a well-written and entertaining young adult fantasy romance with a strong female protagonist who is easy to like.

The novel is set in a magical fantasy world and focuses on a vaguely Middle Eastern/Persian-inspired kingdom, Miraji, where young teenage heroine Amani Al’Hiza is trying to escape her oppressive life in a tiny town in the desert. She manages to escape with the help of a dashing young foreigner named Jin, and tries to leave him behind, but the two end up getting entangled with each other on their respective journeys as they try to evade the soldiers who are after them.

Most of the criticism of Rebel of the Sands (that I’ve read) have been about how it’s boring or about cultural appropriation. I think the boring aspect is a matter of personal taste — I never got bored and was quickly reeled in by the smooth writing, folklore, and magic. As for cultural appropriation, I recognize that as a risk of any young adult novel that tries to use other cultures that are foreign to a writer (most commonly, a white author writing about a non-white culture.) Making a world fantasy but appropriating real cultures doesn’t make it “okay” but I would also as a reader just read with the awareness that cultures in reality cannot be reduced to the simplifications and stereotypes that often appear in stories. As someone who has not personally experienced the culture being appropriated, it’s difficult for me to judge the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, so I just try to be an aware reader.

I got a lot of Under a Painted Sky and Walk on Earth a Stranger vibes from Rebel of the Sands, mainly because of the Western vibe of the opening parts of the novel. There is a similar theme of an oppressive culture and sexism forcing a girl to escape her current life and go on a journey in order to do so. They all end up cross-dressing and on the run from someone. I also got some Star Wars vibes, because part of Rebel of the Sands involves a rebellion led by a dethroned prince and a mega-weapon subplot. Seem familiar?

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting mash-up of genres: it involves some Western gun-slinging, shooting, and journeying, but is also a fantasy full of mythical beings and folklore rooted in reality. I thought this mash-up worked really well, and it also showed some of the clash between technology and nature/magic, progress and tradition. Despite the comparisons with Walk on Earth a StrangerRebel of the Sands feels very much like a fantasy whereas Walk on Earth a Stranger barely felt like a fantasy at all.

The protagonist Amani is an easy character to like. She is strong and independent, and in a world imbued with magic, I like that her greatest skill, shooting, is one built up with practice and time. She is a self-made woman.

Her relationship with Jin, a classic different, bad-boy, rebel type of love interest, has a healthy dose of insta-attraction built into it that raises of the question of whether their relationship is built on teenage hormones or a true deep connection. But he does give a pretty little speech on how he likes her because of how she “taught herself to shoot” and “made herself matter” that made him just a little more appealing.

Overall, Rebel of the Sands is an entertaining and enjoyable read good for anyone who likes a good fantasy.

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