Sunday, 15 October 2017
#CBR9 Book 88: "Rebel of the Sands" by Alwyn Hamilton
Rating: 4 stars
Amani Al-Hiza is poor orphan, raised by uncaring relatives in a small desert town where most inhabitants work in the local mine. She knows that if she doesn't collect enough money to get out soon, she'll end up as third wife to her unpleasant uncle, a fate she would rather die than accept. One night, she disguises herself as a boy and enters a shooting competition at the local watering hole, trying to win enough money to finally leave. She's an excellent shot, and sure that she will win, until she meets the mysterious Jin and things escalate out of control.
A few days later, Jin and Amani are on the run, riding a mythical desert horse and fleeing the armed guards of the empire. Initially, Amani tries to go her own way, she wants nothing more than to get to the capital and reunite with her late mother's younger sister and hopefully stay hidden in the crowded city. Yet her path crosses with Jin faster than she thinks, and she finds herself wanted because of her association to him. They have no choice but to keep running. As they join a caravan to travel through the desert, Amani comes to discover that a lot of the mythical stories she grew up with have more than just a kernel of truth to them. She also grows closer to Jin as they travel, and finds that although she was quite happy to leave him when they first met, after facing dangers together, she will gladly risk her own life if it ensures his safety.
Can a book be classified as a Western if it's set in a distinctly Middle Eastern environment? Does that make it an Eastern instead? There are absolutely Western-like elements during the first half of the book. Amani grows up in a dusty little mining town, and is a crack shot with her revolver. The scenery described is pretty much straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. But the myths and legends, as well as the geography is decidedly Middle Eastern, like something out of Arabian Nights.
This is a debut novel, and while there are a lot of interesting ideas, there is also a lot that will be familiar to YA readers here. Our heroine is an orphan, growing up with obvious hopes and dreams different from everyone around her. She clearly has unusual abilities and as she goes on her journey, she discovers how special she really is. The country is divided into factions, with the oppressive sultan being challenged by a rebel prince. There's a love interest with a mysterious background, who seems to be connected to the rebels somehow. Nevertheless, the elements were used well, and I found I didn't mind the formulaic aspects too much.
The plot takes quite a few twists and turns, and the story ended up in a very different place from what I was expecting. I've seen some reviews say that they found the book boring, predictable and that Amani and Jin had no chemistry. I disagree with all of them. Anyone expecting a passionate romance should probably look elsewhere. There is a slow-burning attraction here, but the main focus of the story is clearly Amani's both physical and emotional journey away from her origins. She changes and develops a lot as she travels, and learns that many things are different from what she was always raised to believe. She starts out as an outcast and loner, but finds friendship and allies in unexpected places, new causes to believe in and the possibility for a very different future for herself opening up.
I have seen several people compare this book to Walk on Earth a Stranger, probably because both have a female protagonist, Western elements and involve a journey of some sort. But apart from that, I really think it's quite unfair to compare them, and this book certainly features a lot more adventure and unexpected supernatural elements. The first was pretty much a straight up historical novel, this is a fantasy novel, with distinct mythological influences. While I thought the first half of the book was a bit slow-going, the second half picked up enough and went in a surprising enough direction that I am very eager to see where the story goes next. I hope Ms. Hamilton can deliver on the set-up she established in this book.
Judging a book by its cover: I really like the cover design for this book, with the dark desert landscape and the silhouetted rider moving across it at night, with an Arabic city in the background. The yellow and blue waves framing the image, the font chosen and the image invoking adventure and the Middle Eastern setting. Sadly, it looks as if the publishers have chosen a much more generic (and less good) cover design for the second book, which makes me sad.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.