Series: Rebel of the Sands #1
Published by Viking on March 8th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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.
I want to preface this review by saying that I did not hate or even strongly dislike this book. I think it will appeal to many readers, especially those who have less experience with the fantasy genre. For me however, this book was just too mediocre and felt too young to be truly enjoyable. There was nothing new, no spark, no “aha” moments or gripping action scenes. When I finished the book I thought to myself “that was a quick read, but I don’t really feel anything for it”. It wasn’t that there was one particular aspect of the book that I couldn’t stand and thus dragged down the rest, it was more that there was nothing that elevated it beyond mild enjoyment.
The way Rebel of the Sands starts off, you’d think it would be a lot more action-packed and engaging. A scene in which our main character Amani dresses up as a boy to participate in a shooting competition. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it should be and yet it didn’t manage to get me hooked. What immediately struck me was the awkwardness of the writing. There were info-dumps all over and the action scenes were a mess; I had to reread paragraphs to understand what was going on because the descriptions seemed disjointed. There were gaps in Amani’s train of thought and the balance between action and internal monologue was off, resulting in a stuttering pace and loss of suspense.
As I got further along in the story as second major flaw revealed itself: a lack of originality. The story felt the same as any other Western-inspired journey story. We have a badass, gun-shooting heroine who, admittedly, is fun to read about, but always the same. She has dead parents, runs away from home, goes on a road trip accompanied by a handsome guy. This to me is boring. I’ve seen it before, I want something new. Or if not a new plot structure, at least elements that make it unique. In this case, these were supposed to be the fantasy elements but even those seemed quite washed-out and lacklustre.
Then there is the fact that the whole plot seemed a bit pointless until I got about 250 pages into the story. Amani was running, but she didn’t really know from or for what. There was no end goal and the story seemed to be meandering about, trying to waste time until the author was allowed to get into the real meat of it all. Amani’s early ambitions were quickly abandoned because of Jin, who – you guessed it – is your typical aloof bruiting love interest with a few witty lines but overall didn’t capture my interest. The chemistry between him and Amani was mild at best. Of course, we also get the mandatory descriptions of his beautiful eyes and chiselled chin. However, I will give credit where credit is due and say that the relationship between the two of them was slow-burn, which did somewhat save the book for me.
Besides the writing, one of the biggest problems I had with this book was the world-building and how it tied in with the plot. The setting I was expecting to love, since I will read anything that is inspired by Middle Eastern culture. Rebel of the Sands however, left a lot to be desired in that department. It wasn’t so much that this element was missing, but more that it was (unnecessarily) watered down. Despite what the (gorgeous!) cover would want you to believe, the Western influences are a lot stronger than the Persian ones, reminding me more of Walk on Earth a Stranger than The Wrath & the Dawn. Besides the names of people and places there wasn’t a lot of Oriental culture in the story, with little to no descriptions of architecture, food, clothing etc. The atmosphere was there, but not much more.
Furthermore, the world-building was incredibly messy when it came to the plot development. The author kept throwing new elements at us (via info-dumps) too late into the story. Though this can work sometimes, it didn’t here. This is because the author would reveal new things to us about characters/places/plot elements and only give us the necessary information AFTER. This means that yes, the story was unpredictable to an extent, but not in the cool “omg I’m at the edge of my seat because I have no idea what’s going to happen” kind of way, but more in a “I have no idea what’s going on because the author has not provided me with the information to figure it out”. That to me is either simply bad writing (because the author doesn’t know any better) or lazy writing (because the author wants to have big surprising plot twists but isn’t good enough to make us work for it). Additionally, many of the fantastical elements (like Buraqui, Skinwalkers, Nightmares) felt a bit like an afterthought and there were inconsistencies with the “magic system”.
In terms of characters I honestly don’t have that much too say. I liked Amani, she was a witty, determined, stubborn character but she just wasn’t distinct enough from other characters I’ve read before. Though I appreciated her going through some substantial character development, I’m not sure I actually like the person she was at the end better than the one she was the beginning of the story. Jin wasn’t noteworthy in any way and the side characters were fun but forgettable overall.
I did generally enjoy reading this book but would not recommend it to everyone. If you’re just looking for something fun and light to read that has no insta-love and don’t mind writing that is still a bit sloppy and mediocre world-building, by all means pick this up. But it wasn’t the book for me. I’m definitely interested enough to pick up the sequel though because I think that many of my issues can be remedied once the author gets a bit more experience.
P.S. Am I the only one who thought it was really weird that Amani’s home was called Dustwalk when all other places had Eastern-sounding names like Miraji, Izman, Dassama etc.?