‘The Final Strife’ is Saara El-Arifi’s debut, a sweeping epic fantasy inspired by her Ghanaian and Sudanese heritage. The premise is excellent, but it takes a long time to grow into itself, and the initially unlikeable characters make the start especially slow. By the end this is an engaging and enjoyable read, with a solid ending that makes you want to read on – but the work it takes to get there prevents this from hitting its potential heights.
In this world, social status is determined by blood. Red blood equals the elite – Embers, the ruling class, with access to blood magic and control. Blue blood means the workers – Dustings – a poor faction with dreams of resistance. Clear is the blood of the invisible – Ghostings – slaves with no rights, constantly overlooked and oppressed. However, eighteen years ago, a group of Dustings exchanged twelve of their children with Ember children – and now one of those children has come of age. A pity, then, that rather than becoming the fated Chosen One, Sylah has been broken by the death of her family and drifts along, surviving only with the help of drugs, alcohol, and an illegal fighting ring. However, with the return of someone unexpected from her past, Sylah finds herself thrust back into the world of resistance. Can she overcome everything to be what she was intended to be – a saviour?
There are four characters granted a perspective in this book – Sylah, Anoor, Hassa, and Jond – but Sylah is clearly the protagonist. Bitter, worn-down, and deeply addicted to Joba seeds, she’s an extremely difficult character to like. She weilds anger not just as a weapon but as a survival mechanism, leaving her short-sighted and rash. She longs to be more than she is but the thought of putting in the work to get there is anathema. Sylah cares strongly about certain others, and about the rights of the oppressed – but it’s initially difficult to parse out how much of that is true empathy and how much is self-interest. It’s easy to feel sorry for Sylah, but much harder to connect with her. As the story develops, she starts to think more before she acts and allows herself to start to care for others, although she remains a caustic personality. El-Arifi makes a brave narrative choice choosing Sylah for her protagonist, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the best one.
Anoor gets the most page time after Sylah and is very different – although in another life the two characters could have taken each others place. One of the Dusting children left with an Ember family, Anoor has been raised in a life of luxury and privilege – but her family have never allowed her to forget that she is not truly one of them. Caring but self-indulgent, Anoor enjoys good food, fashion, and reading her zines – she’s a dreamer rather than a doer. However, when pushed, Anoor is determined, creative, and incredibly strong. Anoor has the strongest character arc, and despite the initial impression of the pampered princess she’s much easier to connect to than Sylah, providing a welcome addition to the narrative.
Hassa and Jond are given far less page time, although arguably Hassa has the most interesting perspective. A Ghosting, she has led a hard life – but also a fairly invisible one, allowing her to see things hidden from her contemporaries. The relationship between Hassa and Sylah is intriguing, and I hope more time is given to her in the sequel. Jond is never given the time to fully develop, so its difficult to have any opinion on him – I suspect he will play a larger part in later books.
The representation in this book is excellent. Sylah’s sexuality is never labelled but she has sexual relationships with multiple genders. The society has three accepted genders and individuals can identify however they please – Hassa is a trans woman taking hormones, which never impacts on her role in the story at all. Hassa, like all Ghostings, is also disabled and uses sign language. Everything is crafted to be part of the story but not key to it, and its nice seeing such effortless diversity in fantasy.
The plot is strong, using the trope of a training plotline and a competition to elect the new leaders. The first 100-150 pages are exposition, but once the training gets underway this becomes well paced and engaging, with a good balance between trilogy-furthering subplots and the main competition plot of the novel. There’s less fighting than might be expected in a novel about vengeance, but the fight scenes that do feature are well written. The writing in general is gritty and dark in places but suits the story well.
The worldbuilding leaves plenty of unanswered questions for future books, but works. The magic system, again, isn’t utilised as much as might be expected, but has plenty of potential for exploration going forward. There’s a great deal of incentive to read on to get some answers – a key element when writing a trilogy.
Personally, I would have liked a different distribution of character perspectives. The start is too slow and too much time is spent with Sylah, the most challenging character to connect to. This would be an easier and likely more enjoyable read if more early page time was given to Hassa and Anoor. For an epic fantasy, this is on the short side at under 500 pages, so using an extra 50-100 to get that greater reader connection wouldn’t make it too unwieldy. However, other readers will likely appreciate the shorter length and may find the plot engaging enough not to need a likeable protagonist. Those who enjoyed books like ‘The Rage of Dragons‘ should find plenty to love here.
Overall, this is a solid debut with an excellent premise just let down by a slow start. Future installments in the trilogy have plenty to build on to be excellent novels. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy who are happy to wait for the story to unfold.
Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd June 2022
Paperback: 2nd March 2023