Rebel 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.