PLEASE NOTE: This review has been truncated due to spoilers. You can find my full review, including the spoilers, over on Goodreads.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A brilliant first chapter squandered by shallow, poorly-executed attempts at world-building, inconsistent Western influences and attempt at flintlock fantasy, and a plot that doesn’t actually appear until the last chapter or so of the book. (And even then, it wasn’t worth it.)
Rebel of the Sands was pitched to me as a Western-and-Middle-Eastern-inspired fantasy about a young female gunslinger named Amani who meets a foreigner named Jin, after which shenanigans ensue.
Let’s show our hands here: I love Westerns. I grew up watching the “spaghetti Westerns” of Sergio Leone, and I even studied the Western genre while at university as a part of my film studies. They’re a genre I hold near and dear to my heart. Tell me you’re mixing it with Middle Eastern fantasy and you’ve piqued my curiosity. My mind goes to flintlock fantasies like The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler, or even the Disney film, Hidalgo. My body is more than ready.
At first, I thought my growing frustration and distaste for this novel was my own misunderstanding of the story I was going to get: I thought I’d get something like The Quick and the Dead. But, no: this isn’t about sharpshooters in a contest for their lives, despite the fact that’s how this novel begins. The first chapter is the best part of the novel, opening in media res at the sharpshooting contest promised in the novel’s jacket blurb. We meet Amani, already disguised as a boy to try and win some money to get the hell outta dodge, and the “mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner” (so sayeth the jacket blurb) named Jin. The opening sequence at the sharpshooting contest is great, easily harkening to films such as Quick and setting the tone for the story.
Except, it doesn’t. Not really.
What follows after that opening sequence is a book without clear purpose that takes far too long to not only introduce the entirety of its world, but to execute its plot. That opening sequence — which is, essentially, the entirety of the book’s dust jacket blurb — occurs in what’s probably less than 100 pages, and then the book has no idea what it wants to do. Amani and Jin wander through the desert with very little clear purpose, and no logical reason for the author to continually throw them together with the exception of their insta-love relationship that, at one point, actually made me half-scream an expletive aloud. I’m holding Rebel of the Sands personally responsible for waking my dog from his nap, because I got thrown serious canine-shade when this happened.
Road trip stories can be great — most of the great Western stories involve road trips — but this isn’t really a road trip story. As the book kept shifting and changing, I thought: so if it’s not about a sharpshooting contest and it’s not about a road trip…what the f*ck is this novel about? This confusion and mounting irritation was compounded upon by the fact that the worldbuilding was so poorly executed. Things that had been happening for centuries, things to which we should have been made aware early on in the novel, aren’t mentioned until we’re practically halfway through the story. Like, “Oh yeah, you didn’t know this?” Well, no, we didn’t because you didn’t tell us. These are elements I should have felt form the beginning — there are magical creatures such as Skinwalkers and Nightmares who don’t even get mentioned until they spontaneously appear more than halfway through the novel.
This is similar to how I felt when reading An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir: shallow, inconsistent worldbuilding with little to no purpose. These creatures feel like an afterthought of the author — as if she was just making it all up as she went along. There’s no proper set-up for them, nor even true mentioning of them, so they feel like spontaneous additions just to create random conflict or jam the not-subtle message of “people don’t like what they don’t truly understand” down our throats. In addition, I have to object to the naming scheme: Amani is from Dustwalk, and it’s he only place-name that doesn’t sound at all sound like it has a Middle Eastern influence — seriously, it’s the only one. Cue more confusion as to why I thought I was getting a Western novel. And the worst part about that is how Hamilton virtually abandons the Western influences as the novel goes along. They disappear to the point that I was left thinking: wasn’t this supposed to be a Western?
You want to do a Middle Eastern-Inspired fantasy, go for it! They can be fantastic. You want to do a Western-inspired fantasy? Please, be my guest! You want to do a combination? Even better — but you have to commit equally to both aspects and remain consistent with them.
The action-packed finale, where the actual plot magically appears like a mirage in the desert, is fine, but by that point I had no investment in the characters or the world. I wouldn’t have cared if all the characters had spontaneously burst into flame right then and there and turned to ash — or maybe sand is the better material for this imagery…
The book takes far too long to make its point, and by the time it does, it didn’t feel worth it. Such a disappointment as I had hoped this would be a book I would enjoy and a potential series to continue, but I have zero interest in carrying on with any future novels.
*nota bene: This book earns its rated 2.5 by virtue of its strong opening sequence and the one moment of Jin’s snark in the beginning third that made me laugh.