"How long had it been since you’d seen a First Being before the Buraqi came into town? Magic and metal don’t mix well. We’re killing it. But it’s fighting back." [loc. 993]
Amani Al’Hiza is sixteen, good with a gun, and being lined up as her uncle's next bride. She is unenthusiastic about the idea, and disguises herself as a boy to enter a sharpshooting contest. The prize money will be enough to help her escape Deadshot (a backwater, deadend desert town which has accreted around a munitions factory) and make for the city, where she believes a better life can be had.
Then Amani meets an enigmatic stranger, Jin, who is up to no good. He sees through her disguise, and offers to help her if she'll help him. Boom! goes the munitions factory. Amani and Jin flee by train ... and Jin offers her the opportunity to be part of the rebellion against the Sultan and his allies.
The rebellion's motto is 'a new dawn, a new desert,' and Amani is intrigued. Especially when Jin explains to her about the First Beings, the magical creatures such as Buraqi and Djinni that are being driven away by iron and gunpowder but are fighting back ... and the Demdji, the offspring of human and Djinn.
I'd have been happier with this novel if I'd stopped reading after the first half. The world-building is excellent -- Wild West meets Arabian Nights, to summarise in cliche -- and Amani and Jin are fairly interesting while they're getting to know one another. But the second half of the novel (the rebellion, and the evaporation of Jin's mystique) didn't appeal as much: though plenty was happening, it felt much less immediate and interesting than that first flight from Deadshot. And though I was pretty much expecting the romantic subplot -- Amani and Jin having been snarking and bantering since pretty much the moment they met -- its development was curiously flat and unsatisfying.
There are a lot of aspects of Rebel of the Sands that I like: grimly determined feminist heroine with wit and courage; non-European roots (there are no white people in this novel); intriguing world-building (for instance, the stars and moon 'going out' at midnight, a phenomenon which has been embedded into religious belief); the shadowy hints of the First Beings and the possibility that humans colonised a world which already had sentient inhabitants; and, of course, Amani's heritage. I'm interested enough in those aspects that I'll probably read the rest of the trilogy at some point.