*This review will contain spoilers!*
'They said the only folk who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good. I wasn't up to no good. Then again, I wasn't exactly up to no bad, neither.'With an opening sentence like that, I couldn't resist picking up 'Rebel of the Sands'. I'm easily intimidated by fantasy, so that is essentially a western set in the Middle East filled with magic and monsters should have been far too scary for me to even consider attempting. I decided I'd give it a go anyway: it was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, and being Alwyn Hamilton's debut novel it was my only chance to explore her writing.
We meet Amani Al'Hiza at a pistol pit in Deadshot, where she's disguised herself as a man to be allowed to take part in the shooting. Girls aren't allowed to take part, but Amani needs the prize money - her uncle has just decided he's going to take her as his wife, extending his harem, and Amani will not allow this to happen. She's going to make it to the city of Izman, where aunt Safiyah lives, or she'll die trying.Things get out of control at the event when her and another participant - a foreigner referred to as the Eastern Snake - attempt to save the life of a supporter of the Rebel Prince. The owner of the establishment wants them each to take shots at a bottle he's balancing on his head, but the third competitor in the final round is wasted and won't be able to make the shot without killing the boy. Just because he has thoughts of rebellion, greater plans for Miraji, he doesn't deserve to die, so Amani and the Eastern Snake come up with a plan. Within moments of them scuppering the final round fights are breaking out and the place is on fire; the Eastern Snake doesn't hesitate to save Amani's life, helping her get out of the fray.
The next morning, back at home in Dustwalk, she's in a world of pain - she didn't get home until late, and she got bruised up in the escape fro the burning building - but her aunt Farrah still forces her to go and open the family shop. It's a slow day, until Amani sees the Mirajin army ride past outside: they'd only just passed through the village on their way elsewhere, so their return is a curious sight. The next moment the foreigner is sneaking into her shop and hiding in the shadows. She owes him her life from the previous evening, not that he'd know that - she's quite obviously a girl today, and the Blue-Eyed Bandit that the Eastern Snake met was well-hidden as a boy - so she hides him while Commander Naigub bursts in and interrogates her. Amani is smart enough to play dumb, and she acts as though she's never encountered the foreigner, despite the fact that he's hidden right below her.
Naigub leaves, and almost as soon as he's walked out the door bells start ringing. Instantly Amani thinks it's an alarm and panics, but it registers in the back of her mind that it's the signal of a hunt beginning. This book is filled with magic, and the alarm signals the hunt for a Buraqi, an immortal horse.
'Ghouls come in a thousand different forms. Tall faceless Skinwalkers, who'd eat a man's flesh and take his shape so they could feast on his family, too. Small leathery Nightmares, who sunk their teeth into sleeping men's chests and fed off their fear until the soul was sucked out.'Amani manages to capture the Buraqi and she's elated: the money from that sale will definitely help her get out of Dustwalk! But because girls cannot own their own property it would go straight into her uncle's pocket... So she decides to pack her bags and leave then and there, on the back of an immortal horse.
The only problem is that the foreigner has had the same idea. She leaves him in the shop and runs home to grab her belongings, and by the time she returns he's gone. In this time Naigub has received a tip-off that Amani did know the foreigner after all, and despite the fact that she tells him the truth - she doesn't know where the foreigner is, at least not anymore! - Naigub doesn't believe her, and chooses to shoot her crippled friend Tamid straight through the kneecap.
Amani's certain she's going to receive the next bullet, when she hears hoofs beating behind her. She has a split second to make a decision: jump on the back of a horse with a wanted man, or stay and save her oldest friend's life...
She leaves him, bleeding to death on the floor.
Amani still wants to go to Izman, but the stranger tries to talk her out of it: life in Izman isn't safe for girls, it won't be good for her there. She's stubborn, so she drugs him, takes his belongings - money and a broken compass - and makes her own way to the train to Izman. It's not that easy, because he follows her: it's a good thing he does, because Naigub is on the train looking for them, and the stranger - Jin - saves her life by pulling them off the train into the endless desert night.
Jin agrees to help her get to Izman: he can see how set her mind is on it, and he knows there's no swaying her. He's just pulled them off the monthly train, though, so it looks as though they're going to be taking a very long walk...
They join a caravan making their way to Dassama, where Amani will separate from Jin to head to Izman.
'Jin I knew. I didn't want to leave him. He made the world bigger. I wanted to go to the countries he'd been to. And more than anything I wanted him to ask me to go with him.'They're followed across the desert by Naigub, having some extremely close encounters with the Miraji army and the Gallan forces currently occupying the outlying areas. When they arrive at Dassama they're devastated to discover that it has been razed to the ground: it seems to have been a bombing, but there's no shrapnel and the prayer house has been left intact. What kind of weapon doesn't damage holy buildings?
When Jin gets attacked by a Nightmare in the desert, the caravan leave him and Amani behind: they're just dead weight, no one survives a Nightmare attack. But Amani won't let him go without a fight, and after he convinces her to follow his broken compass she finds herself right in the middle of the Rebel Prince's rebellion. Amani has to decide whether to support the cause - and discover exactly who she is - and she doesn't have much time to do it.
The first novel in a trilogy, 'Rebel of the Sands' suffers from over-exposition through the first half of the book. As you can see by the recap above, a lot happens - it's just that by the end of the book it's all basically irrelevant, because the plot has already moved on.
It takes nearly 100 pages for Amani to get out of Dustwalk. This might make more sense in the greater scheme of the series: perhaps she'll return and encounter her aunt and uncle, or there'll be a tender reunion with a forgiving Tamid. Without this though, it's a little bit pointless. You can tell she's going to get out, it's just waiting for the book to get there, so all of these introductions to people that won't contribute to the story later - it's not needed.
We also have that problem with her getting to the Rebel Prince's rebellion. They're with the group for 130 pages, so this means there's over 100 pages in the middle that is just getting them there. It's very slow. I can understand why, because it is setting up a trilogy, but it's draining. The Rebel Prince's slogan, "A new dawn, a new desert", is the tagline on the book, but it's a minor part of this first installment.
However, there's a lot that isn't directly addressed. A lot of countries names are just randomly dropped in all over the place, but there is no focus on the geography of the world. A lot of fantasy books have maps in the front covers: the second book in the 'Rebel of the Sands' series greatly requires one, because it will clear up a lot of the confusion.
That being said, I haven't read a book set in the Middle East before, but the imagery that Alwyn crafts is extremely evocative. The constant sand, the dry feelings... It's another aspect that makes you feel exhausted after reading this book, because it triggers all of the senses. Not many authors can get a good mix of action and description this early in their careers; it's impressive.
I also loved the female empowerment from Amani, and later from Shazad. As girls they're told that they can't do anything but marry and bear children, but they both prove that they can be so much more than that. A core belief of Ahmed's rebellion is the fight for women's equality; you can't get much more feminist than that.
This series has so much potential. With all of the various creatures being introduced (Skinwalkers, Nightmares, Buraqi, Djinn) we don't have much time to explore the possibilities with all of them. I'm already excited to see what happens in the coming books, because I think it's just going to get more dangerous and exciting from here.
The rebellion is only just getting started at the close of the book, so I'm sure that it's going to be more politically charged second novel, but I'm intrigued and will continue this series.
I'd recommend this book as long as you're patient: it is very slow, and if you like a fast read that dives into a well-developed and clearly explained world, you'll end up tearing your hair out.