Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton YA fantasy book reviewsRebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

You’ll find no meek or modest brides, no princesses in distress in this Arabian tale. Amani Al’Hiza is our gun-toting, liquor-swigging heroine in this debut from Alwyn Hamilton, who needs to escape from her deadbeat hometown of Dustwalk, or end up wed or dead.

We first meet our sixteen-year-old heroine Amani dressed as a boy, entering a shoot-out to try and win the prize money that’ll get her out of Dustwalk. She is an ace shot, maybe the best in her town, so the competition should be in the bag. That is, until she meets a dark-eyed foreigner called Jin that seems to have as much to hide as she does. When the shoot-out goes awry, Amani and Jin only just manage to escape, but Amani winds up having to return home, a little poorer and a little more bruised than she set out.

Things go from bad to worse. Not only does home consist of a cramped room shared with half-sisters that she despises, but Amani is about to be married off to her uncle, for lack of another husband that will “beat some sense into her.” It’s no wonder that when Jin resurfaces, injured and in need of a hiding place, that Amani conceals him from the soldiers that are after him, and soon after persuades him to help her escape into the desert. Her destination? Izman, a far off city where Amani is sure lies a better destiny.

In Amani we have a refreshing and plucky heroine who will stop at nothing to carve out a better life for herself. Her distinctive voice and ballsy one-liners are what makes Rebel of the Sands such an exciting and compulsive debut. You cannot help but root for the girl that is fighting against everything the male-dominated society and relentless desert has to throw at her. Add to that she is the best shot in the desert, and you have yourself a winning combination.

It’s not only Amani that keeps the novel fresh. The Arabia-meets-spaghetti-Western setting is interesting and innovative. Hamilton has a host of fantastical and mythical creatures that inhabit her desert world: leathery-winged Nightmares that poison their victims with one bite, Skinchangers, Djinns and their mortal offspring, Demdjii, which have superpowers that could allow humans to transform at will or reduce a man to ash.

The pace zips along from the get-go, with explosive episodes (a James-Bond-style race through a train, for example, that culminates in leaping from said moving train) punctuating Amani and Jin’s journey through the desert. As the plot unfolds, so does their love story, with tentative advances from each of them. This was the only trope of the novel that felt like it was verging on contrived. Amani could have done without the romantic sidekick, fierce as she is, but perhaps it was a box that Hamilton felt needed to be ticked.

Rebel of the Sands is a must-read for lovers of fantasy and YA alike. It’s pleasingly refreshing in its world-building, and diverse in its cast, down to the gender-fluid Demdjii that morphs between male and female at will. And with a heroine as ballsy as Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Rey, this story is right on trend. It deserves the buzz that’s coming its way.

Published March 8, 2016. Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic.  For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female. Amani Al’Hiza is all three.  She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead. Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew. Rebel of the Sands reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally, at long last, embracing her power.


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.