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The Final Strife is Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel and the first book in The Ending Fire trilogy, an epic fantasy series inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths. It’s also a spectacular first novel with fantastic worldbuilding and storytelling (the epigraphs and oral tales are especially wonderful additions), and I was eager to read more of it every time I had the chance. It had been some time since I’d been this immersed in a book from beginning to end, and I haven’t read anything I’ve enjoyed as much or thought worked as well since, making The Final Strife my current favorite of this year.

It’s set in a perilous empire, dangerous due to both the tidewind, a destructive blend of blue sand and salt air that sweeps through the land wreaking havoc every night, and the people in power. It mainly follows three young women—one from each social class based on blood color—striving to impact their world in their own way: by helping another prepare for a tournament to choose a guild’s leader, competing to become a Warden of one of the four guilds, or using the fact that she’s overlooked and underestimated to hide clandestine activities.

Sylah was born with the red blood of the elite that would enable her to do blood magic, but she never learned the runes since she was kidnapped by rebels. During the Night of the Stolen, this group sneaked into the homes of several noble families, swapping Sylah and the other highborn children with their own blue-blooded babies. These revolutionaries raised the children they abducted to understand just how terribly those with blue blood were treated: they were forced to do manual labor, such as working plantation fields; they could be brutally executed without a fair trial; and they were impoverished. The rebels also trained the children, preparing each of them for one of the tournaments to determine the next Warden of one of the four guilds—strength, truth, duty, or knowledge. Sylah was a strong fighter and an especially promising candidate for a future Warden of Strength, but the rebels’ plans to install these children in positions of power someday failed when they were discovered and massacred—except for Sylah and her mother, who alone managed to escape. Filled with grief over the loss of her loved ones and destiny, Sylah lost herself in drugs and became an addict, earning money by fighting in the pits run by the so-called fifth guild leader, the “Warden of Crime.” She’s especially wistful when the tournament she was supposed to enter draws near, but she has an opportunity to influence it after all—even if it’s not how she’d always imagined—when she breaks into the rooms of the Warden of Strength’s daughter and meets Anoor.

Anoor is a rarity, having reached young adulthood after being left in another child’s place on the Night of the Stolen. Although most parents killed the replacement children, the Warden of Strength at the time did not. Too many people would question her ability to protect the empire if they knew she had failed to protect her own daughter, so she hid the fact that her child was taken. She raised Anoor as her own, sending her to an elite school and arranging for her to mix a dash of her blue blood into a servant’s red to do blood magic. However, the Warden despised Anoor and made it clear she resented her for not being her trueborn daughter. Wishing to prove herself after a lifetime of abuse and belittlement, Anoor enters the tournament that will decide the next Disciple of Strength, who will prepare to succeed her mother when her term ends in ten years. But when she agrees to teach Sylah blood magic in exchange for being trained for the various strength trials, Anoor comes to realize just how sheltered she’s been from the horrors the other classes endure—and determines to win so she can better their lives, blue- and clear-blooded alike.

Hassa is a servant due to the clear blood that runs through her veins. Like all with her blood color, her tongue and hands were removed when she was a baby—the empire’s punishment for a rebellion that happened 400 years before. Most red- and blue-blooded people ignore those they see working with their special tools designed to accommodate their lack of hands, and they don’t tend to learn even the basics of the servants’ language: as long as their orders are followed, the other classes don’t care what those serving them might have to say. But Hassa has befriended one of the only people outside their community who does understand what some of their body movements mean: Sylah. And Hassa knows more about her friend and the empire than Sylah realizes, using secret tunnels and her invisibility to others to hide her doings, in pursuit of a better life for her people.

The first few pages of The Final Strife are a shining example of how to write a prologue. It starts with a typical night in the empire’s capital city, showing the danger of the tidewind and how wealthier people and their homes are better protected from its destruction. Then the focus turns to a tavern in a poorer part of the city, where a griot tells a tale: a very important one, that of the Night of the Stolen. The oral story is lifelike, vivid, and rhythmic, and I could clearly hear the cadence of the teller’s voice and the beat of his drum. This is a wonderful introduction that relates a lot about the setting in just a few pages and drew me into the story immediately—and from there, this book had me from beginning to end.

Although The Final Strife is mainly set in the capital of an empire with only 13 cities, it seems vast and epic due to rich history and storytelling that makes it feel real and lived in. The fantastic epigraphs add to this effect, as well as the interludes containing more oral stories, such as that of the clear-blooded people’s rebellion 400 years before and the tale of the god Anyme and the spider. I just loved all the details that fleshed out this world, especially since part of the story involves characters seeking the truth after finding a piece of a map that doesn’t fit the historical accounts they’ve all heard. The way Saara El-Arifi parcels out information leading to bigger revelations is expertly done, and there are some great twists—even when they’re expected, they work well because of how it gradually builds to the clear conclusion. (And there was still a revelation right at the end that I was not anticipating at all.)

This novel also had an interesting approach to the tournament storyline. There were different sets of trials for each guild, and the trials for the next Warden of Strength shown through Anoor’s perspective were about more than just fighting opponents. Although targets and combat were part of the test, competitors also had to prove their skills in other areas: tactics, stealth, blood magic, and strength of mind. And even once there was a victor, the winner was not automatically installed in their new position, but instead, they would spend the next ten years preparing to follow the current Warden. Sometimes the next leader had already been in that position before, but if they were new to it, they had plenty of time to learn before being thrust into a leadership role. (That said, it did seem a bit short-sighted that there didn’t seem to be any runners-up in training just in case the next Warden has some sort of accident like being wiped out by a tidewind before starting their term. But then, maybe that will be addressed in a later book in the series since this one focused on the competition more than the ins and outs of the guilds.)

Like the fantasy aspects, the social aspects of the world were well done. Although it certainly has fun parts between the tournament and a developing friendship (or maybe romance), The Final Strife is largely a story about injustice. This setting does not have obstacles for women or LGBTQ+ people—as shown through the lives of the three main characters, a trans woman and two women who are attracted to each other—but instead, has divisions based on blood color. The different classes do not always fit neatly into boxes, even in addition to two individual characters’ situations being reversed: although clear-blooded servants and blue-blooded workers are definitely treated worse than those with red blood, many of the latter are just doing their best to make a living. There are plenty of red-blooded people who need to take jobs doing necessary tasks like cooking and cleaning for those people who actually are living in luxurious homes dining in splendor.

All three main characters are interesting and sympathetic for various reasons. Anoor is part of a wealthy, respected family, but she’s not had a great life since her mother hates her and cannot get past any part of her that reminds her she is not her biological daughter, like her having a curvy figure so unlike her own. However, Anoor has still absorbed the propaganda about how everyone is treated justly, and she’s horrified to see how things really are in poorer parts of the city after Sylah takes her there: particularly, that fair trials do not actually apply to other people and they can be brutally executed without one. As a bright, dreamy, optimistic person, she then seeks to educate herself and consider what she might do to improve conditions for everyone if she does become the next Warden of Strength.

Sylah was raised to believe in justice and revolution, but she’s been depressed and jaded since the night she lost her family and her role in their mission. Part of her arc involves questioning her father’s methods and some of the teachings she grew up with, some of which stem from seeing that some red-blooded people are just ordinary kitchen workers with no real power of their own. And, despite the fact that her relationship with Anoor had a rocky start given that she broke into her rooms and was presumed an assassin, the two young women with the sunshine/grumpy dynamic start to develop a friendship—one that seems like it could turn into more as they grow closer, although there is a love triangle since Sylah was reunited with a man she had a relationship with in the past.

As much as I enjoyed both Anoor and Sylah’s stories, Hassa was easily my favorite character. She doesn’t have as many pages as the other two, probably because specific details about what she’s up to are kept mysterious and gradually revealed over the course of the novel. I loved the way her story unfolded and seeing all the pieces come together, and I have such a soft spot for quiet characters who are underestimated and use others’ perception of them to their advantage. (And I was excited to see the author state that Hassa will have a bigger character arc in the next book in an interview on The Fantasy Hive.)

The Final Strife was a near-perfect book for me: simultaneously thoughtful and fun with some unique details that made it stand out, such as the devices used for blood magic. The pacing, worldbuilding, story, and oral tales were all wonderful, and the only reason I’m not giving it a 10 is simply there are books and characters that I personally love more. However, The Final Strife is a phenomenal book—my favorite I’ve read this year by far—and The Battle Drum is perhaps my most anticipated new release coming in 2023.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Final Strife

Read Saara El-Arifi’s Women in SF&F Month 2022 Essay, “Routes to my roots”