Top 10 Fictional Deserts

Published on: 05 January 2017 Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Thinking of booking a holiday? Alwyn Hamilton, the author of Rebel of the Sands and Traitor to the Throne tells us about her favourite deserts in teen fiction, which might just inspire some real (or imaginary!) journeys.

The Blue Sword1. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

The desert in The Blue Sword has two identities, in the same way that the heroine of the series does. We see it first from the edge, where Homelander colonists have set themselves up, as a mysterious, dangerous but alluring place for our heroine Harry Crewe. But when Harry is abducted by the nomadic Hillfolk, we journey through a landscape that becomes familiar at the same time as Harry starts to shed her identity and become Harimad Sol, a girl who belongs in this desert instead of on the outskirts of it.

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The Assassin's Curse

2. The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

Sure, some of this book takes place on the sea, or on a magical floating island; however, one of the most striking scenes happens in the desert at night where protagonist Ananna of the Tanarau comes face to face with the assassin who has been sent to kill her. It's the scene and the place that sets the whole story in motion and gives this book its mysterious, magical feel throughout.


Fire and Thorns3. Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

The desert in Fire and Thorns permeates the whole of the world of the story, from the city set above a reservoir of water to the daily rites and rituals that are integral to the daily existence of the people that live there. But the desert's greatest role, for me, is in providing a very real, physical trial for the heroine, Elisa. Elisa is an unusual heroine: a Queen, and a chosen one who nonetheless has very little confidence, partly linked to her being overweight. As she is abducted from the city and forced to journey across the harsh desert landscape she proves to herself and those around her just how strong and resilient she can be, no matter how she looks.

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Strange and Ever After

4. Strange and Ever After by Susan Dennard

The Something Strange and Deadly series is one of my favorites. It's about necromancers, hot inventor boys and a girl named Eleanor coming into her own while fighting the undead.

One of the things that sets this series apart from other "undead" books that came out around the same time is that it's set in the 19th century, and it leads us through three different countries over the course of the series: the United States, France and Egypt. The Egypt setting is rich in history and draws on the country's famous ancient monuments and burial rites to set the stage for the final confrontation between the living and the undead.

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5. Cress by Marissa Meyer

Cress is the third in a series which adds a new fairy tale character, with a twist, in each book. Cress is Rapunzel, trapped in a satellite instead of a tower which quickly comes crashing to earth. Taking her first steps in a setting that would kill those much hardier than she, Cress tries to survive with limited help from a dashing, but temporarily blinded, space rogue.

The desert in this case serves as a harsh wakeup call for Cress who has spent her life idolizing earth from afar without understanding the realities of living on it. But it's also the perfect stage to develop a strong relationship between her and the aforementioned space rogue as they try to stay alive and learn to count on each other.

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Blood Red Road

6. Blood Red Road by Moira Young

The desert in Blood Red Road is almost its own character: a huge, post-apocalyptic expanse that stands between our protagonist Saba and her abducted brother Lugh, whom she is determined to rescue. The understanding that somewhere under this scorched expanse in the far-flung future lies the remnants of the civilization we currently live in, lends this setting an extra bit of weight. And that's before you even get to the killer worms and boats that sail on sand.

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An Ember in the Ashes

7. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

While the tribal desert is also a physical presence in An Ember in the Ashes, clearly marked out in the map at the front of the book, the role it plays is more of an emotional presence for our hero, Elias. The desert is where he is from and where he was taken away from. It represents his past, the person he was before he became the ruthless warrior he is being turned into now, and holds, throughout the book, a sense of real freedom that the city lacks.

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The Woman Who Rides Like A Man

8. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce

This is the third of the Song of The Lioness Quartet, following cross-dressing Alanna of Trebond, on her path to becoming a knight in spite of her gender. This was one of the very first fantasy series I ever read and I'll be honest, while Alanna as a character is ingrained on my readerly soul, the details of the series are hazy fifteen years later.

But what I do remember is the third book taking me from the familiar medieval Europe-inspired setting that I had seen in the first two books and launching me into this new unfamiliar desert in Tortall, a setting I had never inhabited as a reader before, where Alanna must prove herself again.

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Mara, Daughter of the Nile

9. Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

This is another iteration of Egypt, but a far different one than we find in Strange and Ever After. It's set about 3000 years before, at the height of the Egypt we know from our history books. This book is older than I am, and was probably the first historical novel I ever read, though I didn't know what that was at the time.

I think it may have been the first time that it struck me that the times and places I was being taught about in school were such lush, intricate settings, and that the people who lived in them had fears and hopes for their futures, and weren't just paper dolls being moved through an already decided history.

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10. Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes is set mostly at Camp Green Lake, which, contrary to what its name might suggest, is a barren wasteland, being used a as a juvenile detention centre where boys must dig holes every day. The setting is integral to the plot in this book: partly because it presents the perfect hopeless, seemingly endless landscape for our characters to undertake this Sisyphean task under unforgiving sun, and partly because of the heartbreaking reason why Green Lake became a wasteland in the first place.

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