My Calamity Jane: A Review

My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi AshtonThe story starts in Cincinnati in 1876 with “Wild Bill’s Wild West,” a traveling western show run by Bill Hickok. The show is always a big attraction featuring the legendary lawman, Frank Butler the Pistol Prince, and none other than Calamity Jane–heroine of the plains.

But the show has a secret: Bill along with his adoptive children Frank and Jane uses the show as a cover to hunt garou (you might know them as werewolves).

Jane is thrilled to have a family after so long on her own. Frank loves the show almost as much as his poodle, George. Neither of them is sure what will happen to the show (or them) when they find the subject of their hunt and Bill is able to retire.

Things go wrong very quickly after Annie Oakley (or rather, Annie Mosey–she isn’t the Little Sureshot yet!) tries to join the show. Annie earns her way into the show, soundly beating Frank in a shooting competition. But does shooting prowess mean Annie can be trusted with the hunt’s real purpose–especially when she seems to hate garou more than anything?

When a hunt leaves Jane with something that looks a lot like a garou bite, she has one desperate change to find a cure in Deadwood–a town that holds secrets and dangers for Jane and everyone she cares about in My Calamity Jane (2020) by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, and Brodi Ashton.

Find it on Bookshop.

In case you couldn’t tell, My Calamity Jane is a western mashup re-imagining the real lives of narrators Calamity Jane, Frank Butler, Annie Oakley, as well as Bill Hickok and many other legends of the American west. Although many events have changed, the story stays true to the spirit of these real life historical figures while offering more optimistic ends for many. This is particularly true for Jane whose lonely life is reimagined here with a sweet queer romance and whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction is reframed as an asset..

While Jane centers this story, Annie and Frank’s romance from their first shooting competition to their growing respect and eventual partnership on stage anchors much of the plot. It’s also almost entirely true (minus the werewolves).

The American West, as seen by white settlers and romanticized for white audiences in popular cultural, is inherently problematic. The authors acknowledge this in their omniscient narration and in conversations Annie has with Many Horses and Walks Looking, Lakota sisters whose help and practical advice are crucial to efforts to save Jane before it’s too late.

The story explores themes of allyship and tolerance through Annie’s interactions with garou (taking the place of the abusive family who kept Annie hostage as a child whom, even in her memoirs, Annie only ever referred to as “the wolves”) rather than using the only Native characters for a teachable moment. The acknowledgements include a list of further reading including several Native perspectives.

My Calamity Jane is a delightfully inventive reinterpretation of the old west; a tall tale filled with found family, fancy shooting, humor, and adventure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2020 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West: A Non-Fiction Review

Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace FlemingNowadays Buffalo Bill is a legend, part of the story of the westward expansion of the United States and the “Wild West” as it has been romanticized for white audiences in popular culture.

In fact, Buffalo Bill was part of that romanticizing with the creation of his traveling Wild West show.

But before William Cody became the showman better known as Buffalo Bill, he was a boy raised on the frontier–the son of a man who would become a prominent abolitionist, he may have ridden with the Pony Express (or not), among other exploits.

One fact remains: Buffalo Bill is an enduring part of American history–both good and bad–and helped define an era as much with his very real show as his tall tales. You can learn more about both (and separate one from the other) in Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (2016) by Candace Fleming.

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Fleming brings her usual thorough research and care to this biography filled with illustrations and primary sources including Cody’s own memoirs and those of his sister Julia. Fleming balances facts with Bill’s penchant for mythologizing his own life with tall tales and other embellishments in sidebars called “Panning for the Truth” where she works to parse the sometimes limited facts from first person accounts.

Each chapter also opens with a dramatic and, given the textual format, surprisingly cinematic account of various key acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which truly transport readers to the show. Fleming also brings a modern lens to this moment in history highlighting the US government’s systemic campaign against Native Americans and also Cody’s own role therein.

Although a little melancholy, as many stories of the famous figures of the old west are, Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West is as fascinating as Buffalo Bill himself. This book does a lot to demonstrate how, often much to his own dismay, Cody was really first and foremost a showman with innovative ideas about showmanship, presentation, and (later on) employing both women and Native performers.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; My Calamity Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

The Good Luck Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole DavisEvery welcome house in Arketta has their own group of Good Luck Girls ready and waiting to make sure each and every brag has the best time.

The welcome houses are all different and so are the girls but the girls start the same: sold to  a welcome house as a child by parents desperate enough to imagine it’s a blessing. The girls are branded with markings that grow as they do, blooming into flowers when it’s time to move downstairs and become a Good Luck Girl. That’s when they’re trapped.

Aster knows the truth about being a good luck girl. She knows the despair and the horror and she knows it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens to her little sister, Clementine.

Except on her first night downstairs Clementine accidentally kills a man setting herself, Aster, and three of the other girls on a path toward escape, justice, and maybe freedom in The Good Luck Girls (2019) by Charlotte Nicole Davis.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Good Luck Girls is Davis’ debut novel. The story blends elements of fantasy with a western inspired setting.

High action, a large cast, and dense world building slow down this otherwise fast-paced story. Aster, the driving force behind the girls’ escape, is the most developed character in the novel and goes a long way to make up for an otherwise one dimensional ensemble cast.

Hints of romance complement the girls’ search for agency and true friendship as they struggle to escape lives they never would have chosen for themselves. While Aster and the other girls reach the end of one journey, readers can look forward to more adventures in an upcoming sequel.

The Good Luck Girls is a fast-paced, plot driven story ideal for readers who enjoy books with boisterous casts, reluctant alliances, and girls on the run.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett, Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, Gravemaidens by Kelly Coon, Gunslinger Girl by Lindsay Ely, The Jewel by Amy Ewing, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, The Glittering Court by Richelle Mead, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Devils Unto Dust: A Review

“Life doesn’t care how hard you’re trying, doesn’t care how much you’ve already lost, it will still break in and crush you and leave you bruised and bloody. And still expect you to keep going, because what else can you do?”

Devils Unto Dust by Emma BerquistTen years ago, the sickness started spreading across West Texas. It had a name back then. Now, it doesn’t need one; it’s everywhere. No one survives the infection. It’s only a matter of time before the infected become shakes, mindless creatures intent on attacking the living and nothing else.

Daisy “Willie” Wilcox is used to scraping by in Glory, Texas. Ever since her mother died, it’s been Willie making sure food gets on the table and taking care of her younger brother, Micah, and the twins. It’s never been easy, and Willie knows it’s unlikely to get easier, but she keeps going.

When her good-for-nothing drunk father disappears with four hundred dollars, it’s Willie who is expected to repay the debt. Seeing no other options, she hires the Garrett brothers to help her cross the desert and track her father down. They’re young for hunters, inexperienced, but that also means they still have something to prove. It means they don’t worry too hard about proof that she can pay her entire way.

The desert is an unforgiving place. With no towns, no shelter, and shakes everywhere even the smallest misstep can leave you dead–or worse. Chasing her father’s trail Willie learns how far she is willing to go for her family and who she can trust. But she’ll need even more than that to survive in Devils Unto Dust (2018) by Emma Berquist.

Find it on Bookshop.

Devils Unto Dust is Berquist’s debut novel. (Be sure to also check out the audiobook as read by Devon Sorvari who brings Willie’s narration to life.)

Willie is razor sharp and, when she has to be, incredibly calculating. Determined to save herself and her family at any cost, she pushes herself well past her limits with consequences that will change her life–and her world–forever.

Berquist contrasts a bleak landscape and Willie’s stark narration with a suspenseful plot and high action. Willie’s life is very small in Glory–a reality that she resents even as she resigns herself to it. Like the desert unfolding at the start of her journey, Willie’s world also starts to expand as she realizes there might be more to life than just surviving in a world ravaged by the zombie-like shakes.

Devils Unto Dust blends a dystopian world and a western sensibility to great effect. The novel’s gritty setting and violent shake attacks are countered by a surprising sweetness as Willie allows herself to begin to trust both in a future for herself and in new allies. Devils Unto Dust is a searing story about choices, survival, and learning who you are. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, Generation Dead by Dan Waters

Into the Bright Unknown: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“It’s knowing someone so deeply that facing the unknown together isn’t dark and dangerous, but instead beautiful and bright.”

cover art for Into the Bright Unknown by Rae CarsonLeah Westfall came to California to make her fortune with her witchy gift to sense gold. Along the way Lee has been chased by her parents’ murderer–her own uncle–and found an unlikely new family in her wagon train heading west.

The California Territory has yielded riches and helped Lee and her friends grow their settlement into the fledgling town of Glory. But a town doesn’t become a town just by existing. It needs a charter. Something that Lee has been promised with no sign of delivery.

Lee has made a life for herself in Glory but preparations for her wedding with her fiancé (and best friend) Jefferson will have to wait as Lee and her friends work to keep what’s rightfully theirs. Billionaires are circling the Glory settlers looking for their own peace of the wealth and Lee is coming up against someone who might have a power like her own–something she never imagined could be possible.

It will take Lee and all of her friends, both new and old, to make sure they come out on top this time in Into the Bright Unknown (2017) by Rae Carson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Into the Bright Unknown is the final book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for books one and two. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

This installment picks up shortly after the events of Like a River Glorious. Lee is still haunted by memories of her abduction by her uncle and, worse, by the atrocities he committed against the American Indians and Chinese immigrants that he held captive to work his mine. As Lee and her friends once again encounter adversity and obstacles Lee has to relearn the hard lessons that she can’t save everyone and that she may not know best.

Although this novel is filled with more fantasy elements than the first two in the series, Carson continues to deliver solid historical fiction. Her descriptions of San Francisco bring the bustling boom town to life at a time when settlers were literally expanding the coastline by building on top of ships abandoned in port by crews eager to join the gold rush. Carson also continues to be careful to keep our heroine Lee at the center of the story without framing her as a white savior. Lee’s privileges and biases are constantly checked by her wiser and often more world weary counterparts helping her to become a better ally and a stronger character.

Forced to buy their freedom in the form of a town charter Into the Bright Unknown quickly shifts to a bit of a heist novel as Lee tries with the help of her friends to get the best of a California billionaire with his eyes on the town of Glory and the US presidency.

Into the Bright Unknown is an excellent conclusion to one of my favorite trilogies. While Lee and Jefferson’s future is uncertain, their devotion to each other is plain and ensures that whatever comes next, they’ll face it together. If you’re looking for a new western or historical fantasy to love this series is for you.

Possible Pairings: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Retribution Rails: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Secrets are like bullets.”

cover art for Retribution Rails by Erin BowmanReece Murphy never wanted to become the notorious Rose Kid. But he hardly had a choice

Five years ago Luther Rose rode in and killed the entire family Reece had been working for. Thanks to a mysterious gold coin, Reece has a different fate. If he can identify the man who gave him the gold piece, Reece can walk away. Until then he has to be part of the Rose Rides–something he can hardly escape thanks to his horrible deeds and even worse reputation as the Rose Kid.

Charlotte Vaughn and her mother are still grieving Charlotte’s father when her uncle begins moving to claim their estate and holdings for himself. Charlotte hopes that following a lead on a big story will help jump start her career as a journalist and bring her one step closer toward self-sufficiency and thwarting her uncle.

Both Reece and Charlotte’s plans are derailed when they cross paths on opposite sides of a botched train robbery. Charlotte could be Reece’s chance for freedom while Reece offers Charlotte the story of a lifetime. Charlotte and Reece know better than to trust each other but they both hope that with a little luck and a lot of grit they can use each other to get exactly what they need in Retribution Rails (2017) by Erin Bowman.

Retribution Rails is a companion novel set ten years after the events of Vengeance Road. While this novel works as a standalone it does reference previous events  throughout.

Written in dual first person narration this novel follows both Charlotte and Reece as they chase dreams and futures they are not sure they’ll ever manage to claim. The contrasts between these two helps to play with their changing perceptions of each other while also highlighting their similarities–particularly in terms of how single-mindedly they pursue their goals.

Reece and Charlotte are often difficult characters–Reece with the past he tries to forget and Charlotte with a surprisingly vindictive personality–and sometimes make the wrong choices. But those stumbles only add to their resiliency and growth throughout the novel. Their chemistry–even when they’re fighting–adds another dimension to this gripping story.

Readers familiar with Bowman’s work will find everything they loved about her first western in Retribution Rails along with a tighter plot which acknowledges the privileges and costs inherent to westward expansion and, in particular, the movement towards rail travel. Retribution Rails is a clever and fast-paced novel filled with adventure, redemption, and just a hint of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Like a River Glorious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“I thought my magic would save us all. But it turns out, all the magic in the world is rubbish compared to good people who take care of their own.”

Like a River Glorious by Rae CarsonOctober 1849: Leah “Lee” Westfall has made it to California along with her new family of misfits, outcasts, and unlikely friends that she met along the trail. But even with her best friend Jefferson and her family by her side, the path to gold and prosperity is not easy–even for a witchy girl like Lee who can sense gold.

Hiram, Lee’s uncle, is still desperate to use her powers for her own gain. Lee was helpless to stop Hiram from killing her parents, she’s determined that he won’t hurt anyone else she cares about.

Lee’s plan to best Hiram backfire leaving Lee vulnerable as her uncle’s captive. Separated from her friends, Lee will need every ounce of her witchy powers, her resilience, and the help of new allies if she wants to free herself from Hiram’s grasp once and for all in Like a River Glorious (2016) by Rae Carson.

Find it on Bookshop.

Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

Like a River Glorious picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one (which ends right when Lee and her group arrive in California). Lee has found them a gold-rich area to claim and their settlement is well on its way to becoming a town called Glory. Then Uncle Hiram shows up, takes Lee captive, and everything goes to hell.

In order to read this book, it’s important to acknowledge that westerns are inherently problematic. As a genre the western often centers the experience of white characters while ignoring or diminish native experiences. Older westerns (and bad modern ones) romanticize expansion, systemic genocide, and white savior tropes while exoticizing, stereotyping or dehumanizing American Indians. If you want to see critiques of books through a Native lens, definitely check out Debbie Reese’s blog, especially her review of the first book in this series.

Reading Like a River Glorious with the above in mind, there are still some problems inherent to the genre. But in this second installment, Carson does the work on the page to constantly check Leah’s privilege as well as that of the other characters (male privilege for instance). This book also thoughtfully engages with a lot of the racism/biases/stereotypes that Lee encounters.

The scope of this book is much smaller, Lee spends a lot of the story held captive by her uncle. Her world narrows to securing survival and safety for herself and those she cares about. She see the atrocities her uncle is perpetrating in his mad search for gold and she feels helpless in the face of it. Understandably, that makes Like a River Glorious quite bleak but also very important as, through Lee’s first person narration, the novel the problems of westward expansion along with the wonder that pioneers felt as they sought opportunities at the expense of the indigenous populations.

Carson uses this shift in tone to create a more character driven story focused particularly on Lee and Jefferson as the two friends try to reconcile their lifelong friendship with what comes next when Jefferson wants more and Lee wants to maintain her autonomy.

Lee grows up a lot in this installment as she realizes she cannot (and should not) always be the hero. Jefferson remains a perfect counterpoint to Lee as male lead and an excellent character in his own right. Like a River Glorious is a well-researched work of historical fiction with a slow burn a slow burn romance and inclusive cast and a touch of fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Every Hidden Thing: A Review

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth OppelThe Badlands are rich fossil country. At a time when history is being rewritten and archaeology is largely unregulated, it’s easy for anyone to get into fossil hunting and make their name.

Samuel Bolt’s father has no degree and no position, but he has countless fossil discoveries and publications of his findings. While Professor Bolt is reckless and heedless of consequences, he is a well-known and popular personality among the fossil collection community. Samuel learned his love of fossil hunting from his father but he is eager for a time when he can strike out on his own and make his own name in the field.

Rachel Cartland’s father is a respected Ivy League professor and the head of a university archaeology department. He tolerates Rachel as an able assistant but he is slow to accept her ambitions for a university education and her own work as an archaeologist.

Cartland and Bolt are bitter rivals but when they meet, Samuel quickly finds himself drawn to Rachel in a way he hasn’t felt for other girls before. Rachel, meanwhile, is immediately thrilled by the way Samuel sees her both as an attractive young woman and as an equal.

Both the Bolts and the Cartlands arrive at the Badlands in search of an elusive rex–a king dinosaur that promises to be the largest fossil ever discovered. As rivalries flare and romance blossoms, both Rachel and Samuel will have to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime discovery in Every Hidden Thing (2016) by Kenneth Oppel.

Find it on Bookshop.

Every Hidden Thing is a fascinating standalone historical fiction novel.

While the time period is never stated explicitly, Oppel does an admirable job of setting the scene of the early 1900s when fossil hunting and archaeology gained momentum (and respectability) in the US.

Inspired a real rivalry (which Oppel explains in his author’s note), Every Hidden Thing has been pitched as Romeo & Juliet meets Indiana Jones. While not as tragic as the former or as high action as the latter, this description is surprisingly accurate and will appeal to fans of both stories.

Written in alternating first person narration, this novel carefully builds both Samuel and Rachel’s characters. By overlapping the narration at key moments, the motivations behind some of Rachel’s calculating choices and Samuel’s heedless actions are also carefully detailed.

Every Hidden Thing is a well-researched piece of historical fiction. Rachel and Samuel are immediately sympathetic but also remain convincingly grounded in their time as both characters grapple with limitations (Rachel’s gender and for Samuel his lower class status) and the rigors of an archaeological dig. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, star-crossed lovers, and readers interested in dinosaurs and fossil hunting.

Possible Pairings: The Lady Rogue by Jenn Bennett, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Nothing But Sky by Amy Trueblood, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, Indiana Jones (movie)

Under a Painted Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.”

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha is desperate to move back to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a professional musician. Achieving that will be hard, especially for a Chinese girl like Samantha.

Tragedy dashes those plans and forces Samantha into hiding. With help from a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha gets out of town and starts heading west where–hopefully–she can outrun her past and claim a new life for herself.

Knowing that life on the trail won’t be easy–or safe–for two girls, they disguise themselves as boys drawn to California’s gold rush.

Sammy and Andy both hope to find ways to move forward as they head farther west. When they take up with a band of cowboys, Sammy and Andy find some much-needed protection and friendship on their travels. But with setbacks dogging them and the law much too-close behind, Sammy and Andy will have to work even harder to hide if they want to complete their journeys in Under a Painted Sky (2015) by Stacey Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

Under a Painted Sky is Lee’s debut novel.

Sammy is a thoughtful and frank narrator. She has made mistakes and has a lot to learn throughout the novel–two things she freely admits to herself and readers. Sammy is fifteen but this book reads younger making it appropriate and appealing for readers of all ages. Sammy and Andy have a great friendship throughout the novel and meet a variety of wonderfully written characters along the way.

Andy is a thoughtful and more experienced counterpart to Sammy who brings some healthy pragmatism to the duo’s travels. Andy is also devoutly Christian–much to Sammy’s dismay early on–which leads to a significant thread of faith and belief imbuing the novel.

Under a Painted Sky is a great piece of historical fiction and a fine western that carefully sidesteps the problematic elements traditionally found in that genre. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and westerns alike as well as readers looking for a book with a sweet but subtle romance and lots of action.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George; My Calamity Jane by Jodi Meadows, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton; Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Rebel of the Sands: A Review

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonHappiness and freedom are hard things for a girl to find anywhere in Miraji–especially in Dustwalk. With her mother hanged and her father dead, there is nothing left to keep Amani tied to a town that would sooner her see her dead than independent.

After plotting her escape for months, Amani finally makes it out of Dustwalk in a flurry of gunfire accompanied by a mysterious foreigner who calls himself Jin. Desperate to get away at any cost, Amani accepts the risks of tying her interests to a man wanted for treason.

Turns out, getting out of Dustwalk was the easy part. With no one to trust and survival far from certain, Amani will have to confront hard truths about herself and her traveling companion Jin if she wants to stay alive in Rebel of the Sands (2016) by Alwyn Hamilton.

Rebel of the Sands is Hamilton’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book presents an interesting combination of western sensibilities (sharpshooters and horses and psuedo-cowboys, oh my!) blended with the Arabian mythology surrounding Djinn or Djinnis. With Dustwalk or the stark Miraji desert as a backdrop, this creates a setting that is at once evocative and atmospheric.

By contrast, the characters and plot fall decidedly flat. While readers are told a fair bit about Amani’s prowess with a gun as well as her spit-and-vinegar attitude, she remains one-dimensional for most of the story. Despite her first person narration, it’s difficult to identify with Amani let alone connect with her or her story in any meaningful way. The rest of the novel is filled with a cast that, while diverse, is similarly wooden often falling into obvious archetypes and tropes ranging from the power-hungry villain to the misunderstood henchman.

Being the first book in a series Rebel of the Sands also falls into the trap of providing too much setup without the story to back it up. A solid two thirds of the story does an admirable job of building the world and laying the groundwork for plot points sure to come later in the series which leads to a slow start to the story. The pacing issues are compounded by waiting until the final third of the book to introduce most of the major characters not to mention several major plot points.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting interpretation of the western novel that deftly avoids some of the traps found in rehashing tasteless stereotypes and tropes of westward expansion. Unfortunately, a slow and predictable story do little to embellish this novel’s unique premise.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting read for fans of westerns or fantasy novels featuring djinnis but is ultimately underwhelming as an exemplar of either sub-genre.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Nemesis by Anna Banks, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede