Title: Rebel of the Sands
Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Series? Yes. 1 of 3.
Rating: 4/5 stars
I received a review copy of this book from Allen & Unwin in exchange for an honest review.
Rebel of the Sands had me the moment I saw its utterly stunning UK cover. I only became more enrapt when I saw promises of a gun-toting heroine taking on an Arabian Nights inspired world. I truly enjoyed the spin on mythologies and the cinematic action scenes this book offered.
The book offers a promising start, with some of my favourite story devices being employed: Amani crossdresses to enter a sharpshooting tournament, where she proceeds to rip all of men to shreds with her incredible skills. Although YA has no shortage of strong ladies, I still have the urge to seal clap every single time I see someone this awesome.
Amani’s confident, competent, and sassy – all that I love in a leading lady. I liked that she also had flaws, being impulsive and at times, short-sighted to the bigger picture. I could empathise with her wish to be more, and to be free – as she plots to leave behind the barrent waste of Dustwalk. In fact, I grew to like Amani so much in the beginning that I forgave the book for introducing our obligatory love interest very early on – despite his entrance being particularly predictable:
‘He had strange sharp features I’d never seen before, with high-angled cheekbones, a straight square haw, and eyebrows that made darl slashes above the uncanniest eyes I’d ever seen. He wasn’t bad looking, either, at that…’
Amani and Jin shared a sweet romance, even though they did lack some chemistry. I personally felt Amani had a lot more spark with some of the side characters we get introduced to later on in the novel. I thought their banter lacked bite – although they did genuinely moving moments. Nothing warms my heart more than a heroine that does the saving, rather than the other way around.
Aside from Amani and Jin, there’s also a cast of colourful characters. Despite their lack of page time, I found myself wanting to learn more about them. There’s the magnetic Shazad, who appeared when I started to despair about the lack of important side female characters in the story. There’s also Amani’s cousin, Shira – whose motives I found utterly fascinating even though she remained antagonistic towards our protagonist. I sensed in her the same need to escape from Dustwalk, and I hoped the cousins can realise they have a common goal in future novels. Of course, that could still be my wishful thinking and Shira will remain a bitter and conniving – but if Dudley Dursley could do it, Shira can, too!
The world building in this book also has immense potential, with the scope already covering three separate nations in this novel. However, we spend most of our time in the Arabian-inspired Miraji. Rebel in the Sands make a genuine attempt at being diverse, with both our protagonists coming from non-Western background. I did bristle a little when we kept reminded of Amani’s extraordinary blue eyes. The book does offer an explanation for this initially baffling choice, but for once – I would like to see brown eyes being accepted in fiction.
‘Iron could hold the First Beings. Or kill them, same as it could a ghoul. Bind them to mortality.’
Another thing I enjoyed about the story were the richly drawn world. Filled with gunpowder and danger – the story could have quickly become Westernised. Nonetherless, the book maintained an authentic Middle Eastern feel – with mythologies about Djinns and fairy tale creatures conjured up by the author. There’s also a strong element of tales, and the remnants of myths that dwell even in the age of Iron and technology. The juxtaposition of the new and old, of the fantastical and progress – has always intrigued me as a reader. Rebel in the Sands offer a glimpse into a world that’s ready to forget the magic in legends, and creatures of myth not ready to be forgotten. The revolution brewing was also somewhat set around the revival of these myths and magic. Not a novel idea in fiction, but certainly one I eat up with a spoon every single time.
‘Night in the desert was different when it wasn’t on the edge of the campfire. When there was no laughter and music and storytelling from the caravan to eclipse the sounds that came from the dark.’
The writing in Rebel of the Sands was also richly imaginative and cinematic in its imageries. Descriptions of the otherwise barren desert was vivid and atmospheric, adding to the scale of worldbuilding. The plot also moved at a constant pace, with Amani and Jin encountering and solving one dilemma after another in quick successions. While the storyline stuck very closely to the expected path: inexplicably unique girl on a mission, and is converted into joining a revolution – it kept interest by the sheer pace of things. I find myself interested enough to check out the next book.
Allen & Unwin also gave me an exciting opportunity to pick the brains behind this story! Thank you so much to Alwyn Hamilton for giving these detailed answers – and for the story behind her encounter with Hugh Grant 😉
Alwyn Hamilton was born in Toronto and lived between Canada, France and Italy until she was three, when her family settled in the small French town of Beaune. She studied History of Art at King’s College, Cambridge, graduated in 2009 and lives in London, where she works for Christie’s as Senior Administrator in the Interiors department.
1. Congratulations on your debut novel! What has been the most memorable part of your publishing journey?
Thank you so much! The submissions process probably sticks out the most. It was such a whirlwind I don’t know if I took all of it in. But the evening of the U.S auction for the book I do remember well. After trying (and failing) to work for most of the day, I had to go find an antique fainting couch to sit on for a bit (my workplace had those). And then my best friend came and collected me. I was glued to my phone and saw an email forwarded from my agent about Viking from another author who I really admire, and I nearly walked into traffic. Only my friend grabbing the back of my shirt and pulling me back stopped me.
Then, the following day, I got a box full of sand, with a bottle, wrapped in a red scarf, with the pitch from Faber inside.
Those two moments, both from the publishers who wound up getting the book at the end of the auction, stand out to me.
2. You finely balanced authentic cultural accuracy and creatively spinning your own myths in Rebel of the Sands. Do you have any tips for writers who are trying to do the same?
My biggest tip would be, take the time to invent an origin story! Whether it’s from scratch or heavily inspired by existing religion, you want to know your world’s version of “let there be light” or Kronos eating his own children, because everything springs from there in some way.
The Humans in rebel, were, according to their religion, made from an elemental place. They were built from earth and water mixed together, carved by the air, and then brought alive with a spark of fire. That meant that a lot of the elements I pulled into the world and their stories tied back to this elemental place in some way, like sand horses, Djinn made of fire who can summon a sand storm… And then, because the humans were created as mortal warriors against an evil that brought the dark with her, it meant that quite a lot of the stories they tell come from this great war between good and evil.
3. I really enjoyed the wide-scope of your world building. Which challenges did you face in attempting to meld Middle Eastern mythology with Wild West-esque action?
I actually came up with the idea to meld the two because of how much cross over they have. Desert landscapes, Bandits, a strong role of religion and on and on. The spots where they didn’t cross over, technology and magic, then became opposing forces. Stories from both cultures are actually filled with terrific amounts of adventure so they fit pretty well together for me, though of course I always wanted to be careful that I was crafting a world that seemed authentic and where everything did fit in, and that I was never throwing an element in there for the sake of it, that it always added to the setting and the story I was building.
It was a balancing act, but I think people need to know it’s ok to diverge from actual history when making up settings, especially when “Historical accuracy” is so often cited as an excuse not to include any diversity, even in a made up world.
4. The sequence with the Buraqi was amazing! If you could catch one, where would you ride off to?
Hmmm…well they can’t run across water, but assuming I could use the Eurotunnel in order to get to the continent, I’d ride to the south of Italy and find a beach with some sun to lounge in and read a book by day, and eat pasta by night.
5. I loved the tinge of Arabian Nights in your work. Hypothetically speaking, which of Scheherazade’s stories would have been Amani’s favourite?
Oooh, I love this question. I mean the first thing to say about the Arabian Nights is that it is not a fixed text by any means so I’ve encountered a lot of different stories in different versions and there are different editions and translations. But, just flipping through my two editions of it, the story that jumped out was the tales of the journeys of Sinbab the Sailor. Those are stories about a man off to seek his fortune and encountering it through adventures and I think that would appeal to Amani. Also Jin used to be a sailor so there’s that.
6. Do you have any book recommendations for readers who loved Rebel of the Sands?
I love giving book recs! I’ll give a few “if you liked X you’ll love Y” style if that’s ok?
If you liked the girl finding her strength a desert setting, I’d point you towards Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS and Robin McKinley’s THE BLUE SWORD.
If you liked a girl defying gender expectations by cross-dressing, you have to read Tamora Pierce’s ALANNA.
If you liked the action sequences I’ll point you towards Marie Lu’s LEGEND Trilogy.
If you liked the world building, I’ll point you towards Marie Rutkoski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE and Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW & BONE.
7. I’m so curious for the story behind this quote on your Twitter profile: ”You’re quite intimidating.’ – Hugh Grant to me once.’
Ha! I used to work for an auction house. It was actually the day after the U.S auction for the book, and day before the UK, so I was feeling a little like I was floating outside of my body at all times so I have no idea what expression I must’ve been wearing. But I had signed up to work overtime doing reception for the charity auction of Paddington bear sculptures because I needed some extra cash to buy Christmas presents. There were a few celebrities on the list, Hugh Grant was one of them, and he arrived about 5 minutes late, after everyone else had gone in. So instead of a friendly crowd of people milling around as a buffer, he was greeted by me, and two other girls wearing all black, standing behind glowing podiums, framed by a huge sweeping staircase, controlling the guest list. He stepped through the doors, looked startled and said: “Oh, you’re quite intimidating.” I was so tempted to pretend I didn’t know who he was and make him give me his name for the guest list to live up to this description.