Book Review: Rebel of the Sands - Alwyn Hamilton

I have recently started a book club at work for students in years 9 and 10 (13-15). Thanks to a generous donation from Reading Hack, out club's first read was Rebel of the Sands - the first in a planned trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton (book 2 coincidentally came out on the day of our group meeting).

Here's the blurb from the book's official website:

Dustwalk is an unforgiving, dead-end town.
It’s not the place to be poor or orphaned or female.
And yet Amani Al’Hiza must call it ‘home’.

Amani wants to escape and see the world she’s heard about in campfire stories. Then a foreigner with no name turns up, and with him she has the chance to run.

But the desert plains are full of dangerous magic.
The Sultan’s army is on the rise and Amani is soon caught at the heart of a fearless rebellion . . .

An epic story of swirling desert sands, love, magic and revolution.

In Rebel of the Sands, Amani (our poor, orphaned and female teenage protagonist) disguises herself as a boy to enter a shooting contest, hoping to win enough money to allow her to escape her oppressive uncle and aunt, and the whole stagnating desert town she grew up in. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan as Amani finds herself mixed up in events and places far bigger than she imagined - great expanses of desert, armies, Djinni, bandits, wild sand-horses, desert trains, sharp-shooting, political rebellions...

Books are such personal, subjective things - this book's Goodreads page has a stream of alternating 1 and 5 star reviews. I found the book as a whole a little uneven - this Middle-Eastern-mythology-meets-American-Wild-West fantasy story starts with a (almost literal) bang, there is a bit of a lull in the middle, but the pace really picks up again at the end. It was really interesting to see that opinions in our group were markedly split between the Year 9s (none of whom managed to finish the book, none of whom liked it) and the Year 10s (all of whom managed to finish the book, all of whom liked it). I think we all agreed that the book's main strength was its setting - the magic, the frontier towns and desert world - while the plot felt a bit standard YA-fantasy-adventure-romance (not bad, but nothing that you haven't read before, with maybe one or two exceptions). One of the Year 10 students is re-reading it and said that the book was overflowing with foreshadowing that she'd missed the first time which helped it stand up to a second reading.

There are two members of staff in the book group too (myself and an English teacher) who were split along the same lines as the students - the English teacher sided with the Year 9s (didn't finish, didn't like), while I was with the Year 10s (finished, liked). The book had elements that I loved, bits that I eyerolled at, page-turning action and plodding trudgery. I'd be interested to read the other books in the series, but they are not at the top of my to-read list.

Here's the book's official trailer:

Up next, we'll be reading the Amazing Book Awards shortlist!

Oh, and after we'd finished our discussion we voted on what to call our book group. We are Fully Booked (if the 2nd placed name had won, we'd be Cucumbers).

What do you think?