By KATIE STOCKDALE
Combining Arabian folklore with the Wild West doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a fantasy premise, but that’s exactly what Alwyn Hamilton does in her novel Rebel of the Sands. Set in a desert town with a shoot first attitude, we find Amani. A 16-year-old girl, chafing under the restrictions placed on her by her aunt, uncle and town, Amani dreams of leaving Dustwalk.
Her sights are set on Izman, the city her mother told her stories of nightly before she died. There, Amani has a long lost aunt, and she’s sure that the city means freedom. All she needs is enough money for a train ticket. She does what any sensible girl with perfect aim would do, she heads to the next town over, Deadshot. Here Amani finds a shooting range and tries to earn enough money for her ticket. Instead, she starts a riot when she refuses to shoot her opponent, a foreigner named Jin.
But the next day the army arrives in Dustwalk, looking for Jin. And he just happens to be in the store where Amani works. This is where the first elements of magic really arrive. After Amani distracts the soldiers so Jin won’t be found, an alarm is raised through the city. A Buraqi, one of the First Beings, made of wind and sand in the shape of a horse, is headed straight for the town. If it can be caught, it can be tamed with iron, and sold for enough money to get Amani to Izman five times.
Amani tames it, though her uncle is given the credit. And with the soldiers sticking around, Dustwalk becomes a powder keg with the fuse lit. And when Amani is recognized as the person who was with the foreigner in Deadshot, she runs out of options. It’s only by luck that Jin breaks the buraqi out and distracts the soldiers so they can escape together. But they’re still followed into the desert. And that’s when Amani has to choose between Izman and the boy who saved her.
The novel’s premise is uniquely refreshing, and the setting is well thought out. While the magic is mentioned most as details in the beginning, it comes out by the end and is fully thought out. But Amani is not an ordinary hero. In all honesty, she probably isn’t a hero at all.
She’s selfish, and thinks only about herself. When she escapes Dustwalk, she leaves behind her best friend Tamid in the not merciful hands of the soldiers. They almost certainly kill him, and, while she feels guilty about it and tries to change, she commits the same act again and again throughout the story.
She steals money from Jin and attempts to leave him behind multiple times. And despite this, she is the one to get angry when she finds out Jin lied – or at least did not tell the whole truth – about his identity. She comes off as whiny and arrogant, and, compared to other major female characters like Shazad or Delila, she’s just not as likable.
This doesn’t detract from the experience of the book. Amani is witty enough that the story remains engaging, even if her character flaws annoy you. But it’s these flaws that are compelling. Perfect heroes do not exist. They never have, and can be boring. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to read a book or watch a movie about a perfectly pristine character triumphing over all.
But it is also interesting to grapple with a complex character. To read about a person who has flaws, who feels guilty, who struggles with self-doubt. It makes them real. And what is more, it makes it possible for the reader to see themselves in the character. In a fantasy novel, it allows the reader to see real characters, to see themselves, in an extraordinary world. That is the true magic of Rebel of the Sands.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org