BOOK REVIEW: Rebel of the Sands Trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic.  For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.

Amani Al’Hiza is all three.  She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.

Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.

The Rebel of the Sands trilogy was hands-down one of my favourite reads of 2018. I had been meaning to read it for absolute ages, and it was an incredible read with fast-paced action set against a fascinating backdrop of a desert country teeming with ancient magic. I’m always a sucker for fantasy based in non-Western mythology, and the author’s world-building really did the setting justice.

I also love a girl who is good with a gun and quick with her tongue, so the main character Amani was an absolute delight. It’s not always easy to make a character who can’t keep her mouth shut sympathetic, but the author definitely succeeded. In general, the writing was engaging, and the twists and surprises just kept coming. If you’re looking for a series that will keep you on your toes, Rebel of the Sands is for you.

So why is my rating not five stars if I loved this trilogy so much? The reason is the lack of queer representation and the unsatisfactory way disability representation was handled. My discussion of both issues includes spoilers up to the very end of the trilogy, so if you haven’t read the series yet and want to remain unspoiled, skip ahead to the last paragraph.

I enjoyed the main m/f relationship in the first book, but as the series progressed, the romance lost its shine. After initially getting together, Amani and Jin spent the better part of two books in a will-they-or-won’t-they state that really made me question whether Amani was even in love with this guy anymore, especially since she spent far more time thinking about another female character, Shazad, than she ever did about Jin.

Amani keeps expounding on all of Shazad’s admirable (read hot) qualities and her beauty, describing her as “breathtakingly gorgeous”, and not only do they share sleeping quarters but also clothing. They seem to always know what the other is thinking, understand each other without words, always look to each other, and when they’re reunited after being apart, it always reads something like this:

And then she saw me and that sloppy smile broke over her face as she closed the distance with a hug. I felt my own arms, like they were finally untethered, fling themselves around her.

I don’t know about you, Harold, but I personally think they’re lesbians. Not convinced yet? Maybe this will do the trick:

Shazad appeard next to me […] Neither of us spoke or broke our pace as we came together, like two currents merging into a river.

And when it’s time to choose who she wants to receive a Djinni’s gift of survival, transferred by a kiss, Amani of course chooses… Shazad.

We’d made a habit of saving each other, Shazad and I, of having each other’s back. Except I couldn’t watch her back on the battlefield this time. And she couldn’t save me from my fate.

“Yeah,” I said, leaning toward her, looping my arm around her shoulders. I leaned my head against hers and dropped a quick kiss on her cheek. Like a gesture between sister […]

Except we weren’t sisters. We’d chosen each other. And now that I’d given her that kiss from Zaahir, and the promise of a life longer than this battle, she wouldn’t be coming anywhere with me.

I was internally screaming during this entire scene, and the screaming mostly consisted of make Amani kiss her girlfriend on the mouth, you cowards! I could go on indefinitely. Don’t get me wrong, I loved their friendship, but they had such chemistry, and I do feel like not making them girlfriends is a huge missed opportunity.

The only other relationship that could be read as queer is that of two background characters, Imin and Navid, both of whom end up dead. Imin is a shapeshifting demdji, meaning they can take any human form, which could have been an interesting exploration of gender if the author had taken a less binary approach to it. When Imin takes “the form of a man”, they are referred to by others with he pronouns, and when they take “the form of a woman”, they are referred to with she pronouns. However, there was no indication that Imin’s gender actually changes along with their physical form, but even so matching the character’s pronouns to what gender they are perceived to be peeved me as a non-binary reader.

The disability representation was decent in quantity but lacking in quality. I do have to give props to the author for including a character who was disabled from birth, which is still shockingly rare in disability representation. Tamid was born with a twisted leg and walks on crutches, and later uses a prosthesis when part of his leg has to be amputated. Unfortunately, Tamid ends up being a morally ambivalent and vindictive character, which is not a problem in itself, but equating disability with villainy is an all-too-familiar harmful trope that we could all do without for a while.

I was similarly unsatisfied with the fact that another amputee character who was missing fingers used her gift for illusion to hide her disability. Hala had also escaped an abusive marriage, only to be later killed in a way that felt unnecessary. Additionally, the main character Amani is also temporarily disabled and repeatedly incapacitated by chronic pain. However, she is cured of her pain in the grand finale of the series, another popular trope which takes away from disability representation. END SPOILERS

All that said, I still enjoyed the series a lot. I flew through it at unusual speed and could barely put my e-reader down. Considering I often have brain fog and concentration issues, it says a lot about Alwyn Hamilton’s writing that I was hooked on Rebel of the Sands from beginning to end.

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