‘They said the only folk who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good. I wasn’t up to no good. Then again, I wasn’t exactly up to no bad, neither.’
With an opening sentence like that, I couldn’t resist picking up ‘Rebel of the Sands’. I’m easily intimidated by fantasy, so that is essentially a western set in the Middle East filled with magic and monsters should have been far too scary for me to even consider attempting. I decided I’d give it a go anyway: it was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, and being Alwyn Hamilton’s debut novel it was my only chance to explore her writing.
Things get out of control at the event when her and another participant – a foreigner referred to as the Eastern Snake – attempt to save the life of a supporter of the Rebel Prince. The owner of the establishment wants them each to take shots at a bottle he’s balancing on his head, but the third competitor in the final round is wasted and won’t be able to make the shot without killing the boy. Just because he has thoughts of rebellion, greater plans for Miraji, he doesn’t deserve to die, so Amani and the Eastern Snake come up with a plan. Within moments of them scuppering the final round fights are breaking out and the place is on fire; the Eastern Snake doesn’t hesitate to save Amani’s life, helping her get out of the fray.
The next morning, back at home in Dustwalk, she’s in a world of pain – she didn’t get home until late, and she got bruised up in the escape fro the burning building – but her aunt Farrah still forces her to go and open the family shop. It’s a slow day, until Amani sees the Mirajin army ride past outside: they’d only just passed through the village on their way elsewhere, so their return is a curious sight. The next moment the foreigner is sneaking into her shop and hiding in the shadows. She owes him her life from the previous evening, not that he’d know that – she’s quite obviously a girl today, and the Blue-Eyed Bandit that the Eastern Snake met was well-hidden as a boy – so she hides him while Commander Naigub bursts in and interrogates her. Amani is smart enough to play dumb, and she acts as though she’s never encountered the foreigner, despite the fact that he’s hidden right below her.
‘Ghouls come in a thousand different forms. Tall faceless Skinwalkers, who’d eat a man’s flesh and take his shape so they could feast on his family, too. Small leathery Nightmares, who sunk their teeth into sleeping men’s chests and fed off their fear until the soul was sucked out.’
Amani manages to capture the Buraqi and she’s elated: the money from that sale will definitely help her get out of Dustwalk! But because girls cannot own their own property it would go straight into her uncle’s pocket… So she decides to pack her bags and leave then and there, on the back of an immortal horse.
The only problem is that the foreigner has had the same idea. She leaves him in the shop and runs home to grab her belongings, and by the time she returns he’s gone. In this time Naigub has received a tip-off that Amani did know the foreigner after all, and despite the fact that she tells him the truth – she doesn’t know where the foreigner is, at least not anymore! – Naigub doesn’t believe her, and chooses to shoot her crippled friend Tamid straight through the kneecap.
Amani’s certain she’s going to receive the next bullet, when she hears hoofs beating behind her. She has a split second to make a decision: jump on the back of a horse with a wanted man, or stay and save her oldest friend’s life…
She leaves him, bleeding to death on the floor.
Amani still wants to go to Izman, but the stranger tries to talk her out of it: life in Izman isn’t safe for girls, it won’t be good for her there. She’s stubborn, so she drugs him, takes his belongings – money and a broken compass – and makes her own way to the train to Izman. It’s not that easy, because he follows her: it’s a good thing he does, because Naigub is on the train looking for them, and the stranger – Jin – saves her life by pulling them off the train into the endless desert night.
Jin agrees to help her get to Izman: he can see how set her mind is on it, and he knows there’s no swaying her. He’s just pulled them off the monthly train, though, so it looks as though they’re going to be taking a very long walk…
They join a caravan making their way to Dassama, where Amani will separate from Jin to head to Izman.
‘Jin I knew. I didn’t want to leave him. He made the world bigger. I wanted to go to the countries he’d been to. And more than anything I wanted him to ask me to go with him.’
They’re followed across the desert by Naigub, having some extremely close encounters with the Miraji army and the Gallan forces currently occupying the outlying areas. When they arrive at Dassama they’re devastated to discover that it has been razed to the ground: it seems to have been a bombing, but there’s no shrapnel and the prayer house has been left intact. What kind of weapon doesn’t damage holy buildings?
When Jin gets attacked by a Nightmare in the desert, the caravan leave him and Amani behind: they’re just dead weight, no one survives a Nightmare attack. But Amani won’t let him go without a fight, and after he convinces her to follow his broken compass she finds herself right in the middle of the Rebel Prince’s rebellion. Amani has to decide whether to support the cause – and discover exactly who she is – and she doesn’t have much time to do it.