Book review: Rebel of the Sands is a winning mix of magic, romance and fantasy

Alwyn Hamilton’s debut novel sets off at a fair old clip and the pace doesn’t relent as she follows her heroine in her quest for self-realisation in the djinn-racked desert.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 6:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 6:08pm

Rebel of the Sands

by Alwyn Hamilton

Faber & Faber

Alwyn Hamilton’s debut novel is a high-concept, and highly enjoyable, epic fantasy adventure for young adults. Picture a gun-slinging, hard-drinking Wild West, transpose it to a sweeping, romantic desert, then add a rebel prince bent on overthrowing a wicked sultan, and a little magic in the manner of One Thousand and One Nights. It’s a winning combination.

Sixteen-year-old heroine Amani Al’Hiza narrates a story that, opening as it does with an exciting set piece, launches at a gutsy pace that rarely slows. Determined to get out of Deadshot, a town where everyone is dirt poor and the only work is at the explosives factory that feeds the Sultan’s warmongering appetite, Amani sneaks out one night, dressed as a boy. She is intent on entering a competition in a disreputable bar called the Dusty Mouth, where sharpshooters fight it out in a pistol pit. Amani remarks that like most folks there, she wasn’t up to no good. “Then again, I wasn’t exactly up to no bad, neither.”

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It’s the first of many tongue-in-cheek one-liners from a plucky and resourceful heroine who is easy to root for. Naturally, Amani is an ace shot, and during the course of the evening she proves her mettle. She also meets a dark foreigner with “the uncanniest eyes I’d ever seen”. He dubs her the “blue-eyed bandit”.

As her mother was hanged for killing her drunkard father (he called her “a used-up foreigner’s whore who couldn’t give him a son”), Amani lives with her aunt and uncle and his innumerable offspring. Deemed to be in need of a husband who might be able to “finally beat some sense into her”, Amani discovers that she is about to be married to her uncle. Tales her mother had told her about Izman, “city of a thousand golden domes”, prompt her to run away and start a new life.

Things don’t go according to plan, and when the teasingly named foreigner, Jin, blows up the town’s explosives factory, Amani throws in her lot with him in order to escape. The two head off into the desert together. Jin’s true ambitions, allegiances and identity are only gradually revealed. Eventually Amani must decide whether to part company and head for the city, or become embroiled in a rebellion: “A new dawn, a new desert.” There is great chemistry between the romantic leads, who are each other’s match in word and deed.

Over the course of the novel, Hamilton creates a convincing alternative universe. Particularly enjoyable are some of the mythical creatures that add to the mix: “Nightmares” unfurl from “a vicious leathery ball into spindly limbs and filmy black wings”; “Skinwalkers” take on the appearance of the last human they ate; and the offspring of djinns and mortals – the Demdjii – have superpowers allowing them, for example, to reduce a man to ash at will.

There is a freshness in the way Hamilton weaves together familiar fantasy tropes in Rebel of the Sands that strongly appeals and, since the ending leaves our heroes poised on the brink of new adventures, readers can hope that this isn’t the last we will see of the blue-eyed bandit.

The Guardian