Like its gutsy protagonist Amani Al’Hiza, Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands isn’t “up to no good” but also isn’t “exactly up to no bad either” when it comes to entertaining and captivating its readers, myself included.
In Rebel, we follow a young girl named Amani whose mouth is as fast as the bullets from her gun and who’s as trapped in a nowhere town as many other protagonists in young adult novels. Amani, however, stands out: Escaping the town of Dustwalk into the desert is practically a death sentence and, as the book’s synopsis reads, “it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female. Amani … is all three.” The prospect of marriage to her uncle or the town creep as well as a fascination with her country’s capital city — a place embodied throughout by the untouchable stories her deceased mother once whispered to her every night — and a captivating foreign boy named Jin catapult Amani into a whirlwind adventure full of magic, rebellion, and a discovery of her own character she never would have expected.
What stands out about this debut young adult novel is that Hamilton miraculously manages to cover everything within the first chapter: a unique and fascinating setting, a story-telling language that stands out, and an opening that is simultaneously gripping and highly telling of the story itself as well as its characters. From the very beginning, the plot of Rebel, as Linda Buckley-Archer notes in her review in The Guardian, “sets a gutsy pace that rarely slows.” Very few of the novels I’ve read recently have effectively created an exposition that is both fast-paced and detail-oriented; most rely on inventing the story’s context on the fly and leave the culture or main characters’ personalities to develop throughout. Instead, Rebel bombards its readers with everything at once and initiates us in its unique world of gunslingers, djinn, and corrupt rulers.
Within the first several paragraphs, we’re made aware of the novel’s setting, an interesting mix of the Wild West full of “some bar[s],” “lost nomad[s],” “real sharpshooter[s],” and a desert world reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights. (When I first started reading Rebel, I told everyone who asked that I was reading a cross between Arabian Nights and Mad Max; Fury Road.) The country of Miraji crumbles around its denizens’ ears and both its supernatural creatures and its monopoly on weapons manufacturing threaten to kill them. As the story continues, the desert becomes a character unto itself, shifting from unfamiliar to familiar, safe to dangerous, mundane to powerful and back again in an interesting mirror image of Amani herself.
Similarly, we learn quickly that this is a strictly patriarchal society in which its female characters belong entirely to the male figures in their lives. Within the first several chapters, we see Amani laid claim to as a potential bride by three men — her uncle, her cousin’s beau, and her childhood best friend — even as we see that women in Amani’s world are not highly valued except for what material goods they bring to their husband in marriage. Amani must parallel escape from the riotous gambling town of Deadshot still alive with not being recognized as female.
The opening passage also allows us to become acquainted with the story’s protagonist quite quickly. Amani can take care of herself and is quite adept at twisting things to suit her needs. She is an angry, bitter character, full to bursting with snarky comebacks and an inflammatory attitude that constantly gets her into trouble. She also rejects the society that allows her to belong entirely to man “down to the clothes on [her] back” and is able to underhandedly circumvent the patriarchal society she lives in. Amani’s prerogative is also made clear, with minimal hedging: She wishes to escape, and, to do so, she needs money. In mere moments, a desperate, capable, and selfish girl who only wants to find the perfect escape route out of her abhorrent situation materializes before our eyes.
What fascinates me about Rebel and especially its expositional chapters is its ability to illustrate to us a protagonist that is stubborn and obsessively self-serving but also has crystalline moments of a humanity not rubbed raw by the sand and abuse of the world around her. I honestly don’t know if I’ve read a female character who is as blatantly selfish and rough around the edges as Amina in a while. She borders on unlikeable except that we see her recognizing her own short-comings and painstakingly rationalizing her decisions to put her own safety and needs over those of others. She feels self-conscious and she feels guilt for the ways she treats others, and she responds to and builds off these feelings. The climax of Rebel brings Amina’s self-serving habits to the fore and challenges her to choose between remaining the same or seeking out a new way of life, a subtle but effective stroke of character development that is both unique and captivating to witness.
Amina’s unique first-person voice characterized by poor grammar and a propensity for colloquial similes and metaphors as well as the magically poetic language of the desert lead the plot forward. Both characteristics of Rebel are consistent throughout and do not allow us to exit the grip of Amina or the world around her. This first-person narrator develops the main character for the better, pushing us to experience the world as Amina does as well as forcing us to stay with her even as she makes difficult and often selfish decisions.
In a journey through sands, magic, and self-discovery, Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands keeps its characters and its readers consistently on their toes. Unexpected twists in the plot and turns in its characters keep the story going and thriving and its singular language and narration remain fascinating throughout. While there is so much more to say about this book, suffice it to say it’s a story that still hasn’t left me alone a month and a half later, and I am fully prepared to jump right back into Amina’s adventures. Maybe some of her gutsy, snarky personality will rub off on me!