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Rebel of the Sands
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
Viking, March 2016
Reviewed from a final copy
OK, I’m a day late with this review because, well, I wanted to talk about this book and then I wasn’t sure if I ought to talk about this book, but I just wanted to keep thinking about this book and it was distracting me from the other books I was considering writing up this week. And basically, if we’re going to move past this week and get this review up, we’re just going to have to push our way through this review all together.
To actually talk about Rebel: this is a title with three stars. We didn’t include it in our original official nomination list. It’s a debut title, and it’s also the start of a new series (and series books and the Printz don’t always work well together, although Morris has had some love for that). All of this may mean I’ll be talking to myself here. But I’ve got things to work out, and a blog, and, uh, I’m all out of bubblegum. Or something.
There’s a lot that works quite well — this is pacy (especially at the start and the end; the middle third is somewhat draggy); it’s a fun read; it has a cool setting (mix of Wild West and a generalized Middle East…though more on that later). The dialogue, particularly between Jin and Amani, is fast paced and full of banter. I did love Amani’s smart mouth and quick comebacks. Hamilton’s world building is mostly well done — not too many infodumps, and the ones that are there are short and mostly worked in that first third of the book where the action and plot are moving along. The magic included, the magic of the Demdji, was satisfying, and the last third of the book had a real X-Men flavor (and I almost always enjoy the X-Men).
Some of the things that don’t work are pretty minor — the action scenes are a little blurry. The middle third slows down; it feels pretty draggy, especially after such a sharpshooting start and an action/magic-infused ending. The amount of times the two sides in the war bump into each other make the story and setting feel a little smaller than it’s supposed to, I think. However, the clashes also are what pull the plot along.
Some of the flaws are a little bigger and will probably keep this title out of serious consideration at the Printz table. While the dialogue is snappy, the characterization isn’t quite strong enough to be outstanding. And although I’m willing to go on record as really loving a lot of this read, I can also recognize that the special powers/teens-saving-the-day aspects of the plot need a little more care and a little more specificity to make this title rise above the rest of the field.
The setting is what I keep thinking about and thinking about. And maybe you all can help me untangle myself here. I loved our gunslinging heroine, I loved the dusty dry desert atmosphere, and I loved the magical-history mix — the way events slid into stories into gossip and hearsay into history (Amani even reflects on being a part of this process in the rebel camp). So although it’s a vague and generalized Middle East, I’m OK to go along with that because magic and action (I am a known sucker for both magic AND action, so please let me know if I’m not landing right here). But my feelings about this read are more complicated than simple enjoyment (although I did enjoy it). Amani is desperate to get out of Dustwalk, and Dustwalk is indeed harsh and terrible. However, this was where the Middle Eastern/Western mix really fell apart for me (in hindsight, not during the heat of my actual read). In attempting to write an oppressively small village that our heroine longs to leave, we get a few ugly stereotypes that are unquestioned by the narrative. It’s possible that these elements will be back for examination later in the series; there’s no way we’re done seeing Tamid, I bet, so the series as a whole will have a chance to revisit some of that “backwards” stereotype set up in the first part. I hope that this will happen, anyway.
However, the first book alone is what we have to work with right now. And I have mixed feelings about this first installment that I can’t quite settle. Maybe you have clarifying thoughts to share?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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