By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton (Faber and Faber, 2016) enters a crowded YA market; the fantasy/dystopia genre is full-to-bursting with now-clichéd “strong female characters,” elements of magic, handsome princes, and rebellions. Fans of this genre are not short of options: the second in the Red Queen series, Glass Sword, came out in February, and there is considerable excitement about the upcoming latest installments in Sarah J. Maas’ two big franchises, with both A Court of Mist and Fury and the new Throne of Glass novel out in 2016.
So, what does Rebel of the Sands bring to the party? For one thing, Hamilton manages to combine drama, intrigue and good, old-fashioned fun in what can sometimes be a rather solemn genre. Amongst the entertaining shoot-outs, chases, and witty repartee is some genuine conflict. Amani, the novel’s narrator, is sixteen years old and stuck in a dead-end desert town. Forced to pose as a boy in order to earn her escape, Amani’s options are ever-decreasing as she is threatened with marriage to her uncle or someone equally unappealing. Amani’s private struggle is set against a backdrop of political discord, power-hungry royals, and unfriendly supernatural forces. There is plenty going on here.
“A new dawn. A new desert. Everybody had heard the rallying cry of the Rebel Prince, but only in whispers. You’d have to be an idiot to shout your support of the Sultan’s rogue son. There were too many men with old ideas and new guns to say a word against the Sultan in the Last County.” – page 22
I’ve developed quite the obsession with this particular branch of YA writing, so I feel qualified to say it comes with very specific issues; for example, the political machinations of faeries and silver-blooded princes can seem difficult to relate to. Hamilton skillfully avoids overloading her reader with made-up faerie species or exposition-heavy explanations of historical battles; instead, she grounds her story in a very topical and familiar area, with the desert setting becoming the backdrop to a tyrannical Sultan committing atrocious acts against his own people. Rebel of the Sands addresses this with a deftness of touch; rather than being overburdened by its real-world connotations, the book gives you food for thought in using its context to craft a wholly believable fantasy world.
Another area Hamilton navigates smoothly which often trips up other writers in this genre is in the discussion of gender roles. Again, there is much real-life context to Amani’s determination not to join anyone’s harem, and the book presents the oppression of women and girls in a fashion which inspires anger on Amani’s behalf without appearing heavy-handed. We first encounter Amani in disguise as a boy, entering a shooting contest which represents her ticket out of Dustwalk and away from a traumatic past and unpleasant future. From this, Hamilton goes on to touch on issues like forced marriage, the sale of girls to oppressing forces, and the disrespect faced by women in positions of authority. Rebel of the Sands is populated with fascinating female characters, any of whom would merit a story of their own. There isn’t a cliché among them.
“I’d spent my life dreaming of my own story that I could start when I finally reached Izman. A story written in far-off places I didn’t know how to dream about yet. And on my way there, I’d slough off the desert until there was nothing left of it to mark the pages.” – page 178
Amani is a genuinely likable character. Even as she starts to assume the role of the titular rebel, her actions are understandable and relatable. She is no martyr, putting her need to find a new life ahead of those around her, occasionally acting ruthlessly. When it counts, however, she is selfless and incredibly brave. She’s the kind of protagonist whose viewpoint I enjoy: very human, with enough heroic aspects to give her an air of fascinating mystique. Inevitably, there’s a romance nudging its way into the story, but this is secondary to Amani’s character development and the encroaching violence of the rebellion.
I can’t mention my sole complaint with Rebel of the Sands without giving away a crucial plot reveal, but, suffice it to say, there is one way in which the novel falls into line with its YA fantasy stable-mates. It’s not something that’s a big problem, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the likes of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy or Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen, but there is one particular trope which reared its head here, just when I was feeling confident it wasn’t going to feature. In general, Alwyn Hamilton manages to use the familiar tropes of this type of fiction while adding something unique and fascinating. Even when Rebel of the Sands echoes its predecessors, it whispers of something special and unique.
I was slightly fearful of reading Rebel of the Sands, having been disappointed with some of 2016’s other hyped YA novels, but this delivered in every way. I’m also apprehensive about reading anything which is billed as the first in a trilogy, having found myself in the midst of about 5 different series. There’s enough action here to engage an adrenaline-junkie, with sufficient reflection to provide stimulation for someone who is less entertained by explosions and fight sequences. The most tangible praise I can offer is that I fully intend to order a stack of Rebel of the Sands to read with my students at school; I spend my life searching for the book which will make my classroom ring with cries of “we love this book” and “reading is not only fun but also enlightening!” I think this might be the one.
Rebel of the Sands will be available soon at GPL.