Rebel of the Sands: started off strong, but soon lost its spark

rebel of the sands review


rebel of the handsRebel of the Sands follows the story of Amira, a young girl from a small town named Dustwalk who’s only desire in life is to gather enough money to leave her home-town and travel to the city Izmat. Amira has a tough life; her mother was hanged by the government when she killed Amira’s abusive father. Since then, Amira’s been living with her aunt, uncle and her uncle’s children from several different wives. Amira has no money, but she’s good with a gun- when she enters a competition, squaring off against a public favorite and a foreigner, things don’t quite go according to plan. Forming a paper-thin alliance with this foreigner, Amira finds herself in a sticky situation that doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well for anyone involved.

Rebel of the Sands started off with a bang: the first few chapters had me completely hooked. The writing was wonderful, and I felt that the characters – in all their flaws and charm – had the potential to grow and mature. But if I were to read the first chapter and the last chapter, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how the characters changed- if they changed at all. After a bit, it became apparent that the characters had very little potential for development. Coupled with the fact that the romance was glossed over and all the slow-burn was taken out of it by saying, “for 6 weeks they traveled together,” I found myself not caring for these people whatsoever. Unfortunately, the plot did very little to rectify that. I was confused for a large part of the story, and indifferent after the first 25%.

Based heavily off Middle Eastern culture and folklore, Rebel of the Sands draws elements from both fantasy and Westerns. Most traditional fantasy novels involve fighting with variations of knives and what not, but Hamilton’s story contains multiple shoot-outs. I suppose this can be called flintlock fantasy (I’m not sure, so if I’m wrong, please do correct me), and it was refreshing to see it take place in a non-Western society. But perhaps what bothers me the most about this novel is how the Middle Eastern culture was incorporated into the story.

The superficial details are all there: our main character loves baklava (*rolls eyes* because nothing screams Arabian food quite like baklava), the novel largely takes place in the desert (a huge stereotype for the Middle East), most of the clothing involves covering up the face and leaving the eyes bare (Islamic niqab), the religion involves kneeling on a mat (the Islamic form of prayer) and the supernatural creatures are called djinn (an actually legitimate entity in Islam.) But I didn’t feel immersed in the culture at all, which is such a shame. I’m not Middle Eastern (I’m Pakistani, and Pakistan’s not in the Middle East no matter what Fox News tells you), but I am familiar with the culture. Why? I’ve studied Islamic history as I was growing up, and some of my culture involves elements of Middle Eastern culture. My mother tongue is a combination of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian; many of our values are similar due to a shared majority religion, although my country is generally more liberal than, let’s say, Saudi Arabia. And just like the Middle East, my birth country often falls prey to wildly inaccurate stereotypes that severely damage its international reputation in front of people who have given it little to no chance.

It’s no surprise that some ignorant fools have begun to use the Middle East as a dirty word- as if the entire region is a taboo topic, a hell on earth where barbarians walk free, who stone women and chop off the heads of infidels. That is the stereotype, and while I agree that the Middle East needs to get its shit together when it comes to certain issues, I also argue that Middle Eastern culture is rich, varied and most of it is beautiful. Collectivist societies where families are tight-knit, places where charity is believed to be a basic human right, where generosity is considered a priority in society. To see this grand, ancient culture reduced to its most negative, primitive form was… offensive, to say the least.

Unlike The Wrath and the Dawn, where it became apparent that Renée Ahdieh studied and immersed herself in Persian culture and incorporated Middle Eastern elements quite responsibly while staying true to both negatives and positives, Alwyn Hamilton depicts a barbaric, disgusting society that plays on the most negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern culture. I will repeat: I am not naive, nor am I blind. I know there are many problems in many countries in the Middle East with regards to womens’ rights and minority rights, but to reduce an entire culture to this was just… I can’t even. At first it didn’t bother me because this issue was disguised under baklava, but as I grew increasingly disenchanted with the other elements in the novel, the issue became less subtle.

So I guess that culminates my rather personal rant. I’d just like to say that of course, this is my opinion. After having read several negative reviews on this and not seeing anything even remotely similar to my experiences of this book (granted, none of these negative reviews were written by people who relate to the Middle East), I have come to the conclusion that this review is extremely personal and may obviously not hold for your experience of the novel. I have always thought that unless you are careful about what you write when it comes to other cultures, unless you know that you can do them justice and write them responsibly, you should probably just stay away. But then again, who am I to tell anyone what to write? I am nobody – a college student with two creative writing classes under her belt and nothing else to offer. Just know that I mean no offense to anybody who was involved in this book, or who is a fan of it.

In the end, I believe the book deserves a rating of 2.5 stars. The beginning was very strong, so it obviously merits more than just a 1 star rating. More than a 2-star rating because I’m still somewhat interested in reading the next book, if only to see if Hamilton improves. This is her debut: she might still have a ton to offer.

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rebel of the sands rating

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Comments

  1. I don’t have the background knowledge that you do about the setting, but I agree completely that it fell prey to seriously problematic stereotypes and pretty obviously illustrated a lack of research and, frankly, a lack of commitment to learning about what she was primarily writing about. I didn’t have a lot of good things to say about this book when I read it. The cover is stunning; it’s honestly a great representation of the opposite end of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” because sometimes the book sleeve is gorgeous but what’s inside the pages falls flat.

    • Oh, totally. It’s SUCH shame when the cover is so, so stunning but the book just falls flat. 🙁 It’s one of the worst things in my reading experience, ha. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who had this sentiment. I was beginning to think I had read a different book that was wildly stereotypical, because I heard NOTHING about what I was saying!

  2. Love it. It’s exactly what I talked about in this week’s Top 5 Wednesday where we need proper representation of other places and their cultures. But this does give me some hope for The Wrath and the Dawn. It sounds like you liked it? Or at least preferred it to this.

  3. OH no, I’m so sad to hear you didn’t like this book that much. I heard mixed reviews about it, and to be honest I am glad you underlined the fact that it doesn’t really represent accurately, or do any real justice to the culture. I really liked The Wrath and The Dawn and felt like the author, just like you said, immersed herself into the culture, with the good, the bad, and I felt like I was really, into it. I’m sad to hear it’s not happening in that book, this is what made me want to read it :/

    • Yes, I went to a Renee Ahdieh signing and she mentioned just how much research went into the culture she was portraying. She’s apparently married to an Irani man so she got a lot of her information first-hand, which I thought was really awesome. I’m sure most people don’t think the portrayal was offensive- it was just a nagging feeling I had that didn’t bother me while I was enjoying the story, but started getting stronger when the story no longer interested me as much! :3 Maybe you can borrow it from a library or something- it’s not too bad of a read, you might enjoy it!

  4. I gave it a very similar rating and felt a similar way! I gave it 3 stars although initially I thought it would be a shoe-in for a 5 star. Although my problem wasn’t with the portrayal of Middle Eastern influence, my problem was that I felt it lacked in how much *power* Amira was said to have versus how much she showed. I think I might read the sequel, though I would definitely check it out from my library.

    Jess @ POB!

    • Yes, definitely, I think that was a negative. I also really disliked how she kept leaving people behind! In the first few chapters, she literally leaves her ‘best friend’ to die even though it was basically her fault he was there in the first place, and then later, she promises Noorsham she’ll save him and then just leaves. Am I supposed to be rooting for this girl who literally does not give a shit about anyone else?!

  5. Oh dear! I was looking forward to reading this because as an Indian Muslim living in Dubai who loves reading but hardly comes across books that are set in the middle east, this book sounded promising but *sigh* nevermind I guess…

  6. I had the same issue with this book but couldn’t quite put it into words as well as you did. Being a Pakistan born Muslim living in London for most of my life I have had first hand experience of western society misinterpreting our countries and culture especially the media and certain parts of this story left a bad aftertaste.

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