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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is speculative fiction author Ruthanna Emrys! Her short fiction includes “The Deepest Rift,” “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land,” and “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” The Innsmouth Legacy series, her Mythopoeic Award–nominated spin on the Cthulhu mythos, begins with the novelette “The Litany of Earth” and continues in the novels Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her upcoming science fiction book, A Half-Built Garden, is described as “a novel of extraterrestrial diplomacy and urgent climate repair bursting with quiet, tenuous hope and an underlying warmth”—and is coming out on July 26!

Cover of A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

As I write this, I’m crowded into a messy basement with two kids, five adults, two dogs, and two cats for a tornado warning. It’s well after the kids’ bedtime. Earlier I put in an ice cream order to cope with the state of the world. The delivery person, who lives a much more precarious life than any of my family, showed up in the middle of the warning but wouldn’t accept our offer to join us in the basement. The ice cream was a reaction to anxiety over distant wars that may at any minute draw closer, new transphobic and homophobic laws just across nearer borders, and an ongoing pandemic that might have been over by now if we were better at organizing collective societal responses to crisis.

No one needs to tell my children that the personal is political, but I tell them anyway.

Speculative fiction is full of starship crews and quest fellowships, found families pulled together by mission. Most of them are essentially single-generation, even if elves and humans may be centuries apart in technical age. When kids show up—How long a trek through space do you really want with no work-life balance?—they are most often a barrier to adventure, or else an impetus for it when they’re threatened. Other times the focus is on the younger generation, learning from mentors or dodging protective parents but ultimately bearing the weight of the world on their own.

When I had kids, the world didn’t stop dropping troubles in my lap, adventurous or otherwise. I just had to fit them into my lap with the kids also sitting there. And I had to bring my kids into the solving of those troubles, because problem-solving doesn’t actually pass neatly between generations.

When I set out to write A Half-Built Garden, I wanted a story that reflected my own experiences as a parent dealing with a troubled world. Maybe even a story that valued what parents in particular bring to world-saving (other than sleep deprivation). The opening scene includes both first contact with an alien starship, and a diaper change. I read it aloud at a get-out-the-vote event with Malka Older (author of the Centenal Cycle, and also a world-saving parent), and described the subgenre as “diaperpunk.” This resulted in months—a couple of years, in fact—of Malka asking me how “the diaperpunk book” was coming along.

But hard as it is to balance childrearing with everyday political activism, adding writing to the mix is even harder. So A Half-Built Garden was a slow, urgent creation. It grew: fed by the experiences of bringing my daughter to her first protest march, sitting down for “the talk”—multiple talks—about the injustices of bigotry, and working through pandemic safety and community response around the kitchen table. Like my characters, my own life has become a search for work/life/first contact balance.

This book has felt in some ways like an invocation. I set it just beyond the years I’m likely to live to see. I set it in my own neighborhood, envisioning how this beloved place might look in a world where we’ve grown just a bit as a species—where we’ve learned how to handle the existential challenges plaguing us now, and are not quite ready to be terrified by the next set. The neighborhood of 2083 includes trees I’ve already planted, mature technologies I’ve seen through their earliest stages, and watershed protection measures proposed a couple of years ago at our town’s environmental council meeting.

It’s far from a perfect world, but it’s a world I’d be glad to put in the hands of my grandchildren, when my grandchildren are old enough to juggle diaper changes with first contact.

Photo of Ruthanna Emrys Ruthanna Emrys is the author of A Half-Built Garden, Winter Tide, and Deep Roots. She writes radically hopeful short stories about religion and aliens and psycholinguistics. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. There she creates real versions of imaginary foods, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Jenn Lyons! She was a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer both years she was eligible following the release of The Ruin of Kings, her epic fantasy debut novel and the first book in A Chorus of Dragons. The next three books in this series “about a long-lost royal whose fate is tied to the future of an empire”—The Name of All Things, The Memory of Souls, and The House of Always—are out now. The fifth and final book, The Discord of Gods, will be published next week—on April 26!

Cover of The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons Cover of The Discord of Gods by Jenn Lyons

Out of the Maze
By Jenn Lyons

Like so many girls of my generation (Gen X, to be specific), I grew up being told that I would need to be rescued. We were a generation that was starting to have some idea that this wasn’t true, mostly thanks to earlier feminist movements and our own mothers’ horror stories. But still, there was a lot of rescuing going on. The first two fantasies that I can distinctly remember as a child were Snow White (in illustrated book form) and Sleeping Beauty (the Disney animated movie) and both had a lasting impact on me. Even then as a child, I was starting to rebel from the messages presented therein. The idea that the Wicked Queen deserved to be literally tortured to death (yes, this was a version of the story where she’s forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes) was abhorrent. And Maleficent inspired in me an immediate and permanent love of dragons that has never faded to this day.

I felt little equivalent sense of connection to the princesses themselves.

I was too young, however (far too young) to have any idea why these stories didn’t quite mesh. Why I loved dragons but not unicorns. Why I was more interested in the ‘evil’ women who were out there scheming and acting than the ‘good’ girls who existed simply to have things done to them or for them. Cursed, rescued, married.

Then, I read one of those books that would change everything for me.

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I had not yet read A Wizard of Earthsea, which in hindsight strikes me as almost miraculous in its own right given how I searched out books with dragons on the covers as a child (note: I confess I still do this). So I started out of order, with the second book in the series, with the book that so many others liked less because it stopped focusing on the main character they loved so much and instead focused on someone new, female, and perhaps not even that “likable.” (It was a sharp turn I would unintentionally echo with the second book in my own series, and with much the same reaction from readers.)

Tenar was imperfect and flawed, brittle and young, trapped in service to an evil god. In any piece of Western mythology, she would have been either a villain or the naive beauty seduced by the hero in order to escape. The story would never center on her. And yet, in this brilliant, miraculous story, it does. She is notably white, but that whiteness is not framed as a positive — something I had before that moment never encountered either.

Rather than seduce her physically, Ged encourages her to open her eyes and seek out the truth herself. He makes no move — none at all — to try to turn their relationship into a romantic one. (In much later books it will be revealed that this is less a testament to Ged’s gentlemanly nature than because he was essentially locked in a state of perpetual prepubescence, incapable of experiencing sexual interest. Rather than this being a statement of asexuality, it’s magical in origin, and when that block is removed much later in his life, he and Tenar do indeed turn their relationship into both a highly romantic and highly sexual one.)

But back to me, childhood, and how this book kicked over the first of the dominoes. The idea that Tenar might be the one with power, the idea that this power wouldn’t necessarily be a benevolent thing — that a woman with power might not necessarily be any better, gentler, or more perfect than a man with power — was heady stuff to a nine-year-old. It was a period in my life where I was being bullied, horribly bullied, and nursed a hatred for my tormentors that blazed with incandescent rage. I needed someone to tell me that I could still be in the wrong even if I had myself been wronged. I needed someone to point out that trauma in and of itself is neither entitling nor ennobling. Ursula K. Le Guin did that for me, even if it took decades before I fully understood the message.

It’s not as negative as it may sound. For, you see, if women are just as capable of men of being unworthy to give power, just as cruel, just as tyrannical, then it meant we were just as undeserving of rescuing, of pedestals, of towers. We didn’t need to be protected or coddled. Sometimes people need to be protected from us. If we’re like this, doesn’t that too mean that men can be kind, gentle, tender? That we are, in fact, equal?

I think of this every time someone suggests that SFF books don’t really matter, that SFF books by women, don’t really matter. How powerful it is to look at a book and for the first time see yourself reflected back as someone you would like to be, rather than as someone society has told you that you’re required to be.

It matters a lot.

Photo of Jenn Lyons
Photo Credit: Matthew & Nicole Nicholson, Dim Horizon Studio
Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, three cats and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from Sumerian mythology to the correct way to make a martini. Lyons traces her geek roots back to playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons in grade school and reading her way from A to Z in the school’s library. Formerly an art director and video game producer, she now spends her days writing fantasy. In 2020, she was nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her five-book Chorus of Dragons fantasy series begins with The Ruin of Kings.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy author Chelsea Abdullah! The Stardust Thief, her debut novel and the first book in The Sandsea Trilogy, will be available in the US on May 17 and the UK on May 19. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, this epic fantasy story is described as a book that “weaves together the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp.”

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah - Book Cover

Why SFF?: Lies, Truths, and the Story Between Them

As a kid, one of my favorite games to play was Telephone, that children’s activity where someone whispers a story in your ear and you have to relay it to the next person from memory. The storyteller might begin, “Once upon a time, a prince rode out to slay a dragon and save a princess” but by the time we get to the final iteration of the story, the narrative could have changed to, “Once upon a time, a princess befriended a dragon and protected her from a conniving prince.”

I’ve always thought that there was a unique magic to oral storytelling. It’s impossible to peg down a single “truth” in those tales when everyone remembers the narrative differently. Perhaps that’s why those stories have always stuck with me most. Just recently, when I was asked which version of the 1001 Nights I used as inspiration for my Arab-inspired fantasy debut, my answer was “the versions my dad used to tell me and my sister as kids.”

The true power of a story is in the telling, and the “truth” that someone takes away from that story is dependent on their own lived experience. When I set out to write The Stardust Thief, I wanted to pay homage to the 1001 Nights and to Arab oral tales as I had experienced them. With that goal came a desire to write a fantasy that was a love letter to my Arab heritage.

Why a fantasy?

First, I’ve always thought the SFF genre is an evocative landscape for exploring the murky spaces between truths and lies—it allows authors and readers to examine human truths from a distance and through fantastical concepts that can both enchant and critique.

Second, I looked for these fantastical stories as a kid. In the Kuwait libraries, in the bookstores, online—I yearned to see nuanced depictions of Arab culture in fantasy that went beyond “exotic.” Many of the Arab-coded characters I read were portrayed as unfortunate archetypes: villains or barbarians who existed within a hostile, unhospitable desert environment. I was constantly searching for books that had rep that felt…real.

It wasn’t until much later that I started to find these books, rare as they were. The first time I saw Arabic words in a popular fantasy, I was overjoyed. I can understand those words, I thought. It was a magical moment, to feel like I was being spoken to.

That joy—that pride in my heritage—lies at the heart of The Stardust Thief. But this story isn’t just a love letter to oral storytelling. As I was remembering these old tales I’d grown up with, I mused a lot on the idea of stories as a bridge between truth and fiction.

When I sat down to write, I decided I wanted to explore that in-between space in my writing. In the world of The Stardust Thief, the lines between story and reality blur. Was the man who trapped the jinn in the mythical magic lamp righteous or evil? Is the King of the Forty Thieves, a famed jinn hunter, a hero or a villain? Depending on who you ask in the story, the answer changes.

And the same is true of our reality. The truth is slippery, and everyone is a storyteller. Even written stories evolve and, just like a game of Telephone, the meaning of the story changes with the reader.

Culture is a palimpsest of lived experiences, not just a single story told repeatedly. The Stardust Thief is a very personal story for me, but I hope that it inspires pride (for those who see echoes of their lived experiences in it) or wonder (for those seeing a new perspective) in the culture that inspired it.

The Stardust Thief is a quest narrative, but it’s also a story about stories—the ones we tell ourselves and the ones others tell about us. It’s a story about how those narratives shape us, and why remembering and sharing them is important. It’s a high fantasy, but the world and culture are inspired by my heritage. It’s an in-between place, a story between personal truths and fiction.

I’m excited to add my voice, as an American-Arab woman, to a genre that simultaneously encourages readers to suspend their disbelief and to expand their worldview. This is becoming even more true as the Adult SFF sphere becomes more inclusive, opening doors to voices from different backgrounds and cultures. (Which I hope to see even more of in the future!)

The true power of a story is in the telling. We’ve always told fantastical stories to make sense of the world, and it will be a joy to see—and an honor to participate in—the future of those evolving narratives.

Photo of Chelsea Abdullah Chelsea Abdullah is an American-Kuwaiti writer born and raised in Kuwait, where she grew up listening to stories about mysterious desert creatures and wily (only sometimes likable) heroes. Consumed by wanderlust, she has put down roots in various states. After earning her MA in English at Duquesne University, she moved to New York, where she currently lives. When not immersed in her own fictional worlds, she spends her free time playing video games, doodling characters, and hoarding books she doesn’t have the shelf space for.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests for another great week of Women in SF&F Month 2022!

The third week of guest posts starts tomorrow and runs through Friday. But before announcing the schedule, here are last week’s essays in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2022 can be found here, and last week’s guest posts were:

And there will be more guest posts throughout the week, starting tomorrow morning! This week’s guest posts are by:

Women in SF&F Month 2022 Week 3 Graphic

April 18: Chelsea Abdullah (The Stardust Thief)
April 19: Jenn Lyons (The Discord of Gods and the rest of A Chorus of Dragons)
April 20: Ruthanna Emrys (A Half-Built Garden, The Innsmouth Legacy)
April 21: Vaishnavi Patel (Kaikeyi, “Logic Puzzles“)
April 22: Davinia Evans (Notorious Sorcerer)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is author and game designer Kimberly Unger! Her work includes the short stories “The Aborted Robot Uprising of TastyHomeThings” and “Wishes Folded into Fancy Paper,” as well as the science fiction technothriller Nucleation, her debut novel. The Extractionist, her sophomore novel publishing on July 12, features a hacker who extracts people unable to get themselves out of virtual space.

Cover of The Extractionist by Kimberly Unger

I’ve come to the realization that the idea of “dumbing down” needs to die.

Writing is research, pain and simple. Any topic you don’t have a personal expertise in (which is likely a LOT of things) takes a certain amount of asking questions. Way back when I first started learning to write I leaned into that way too hard. I write science fiction (and the occasional textbook) so the desire to provide well-researched, nuanced takes on future technologies is a strong one. I’d go so far as to say I do research sometimes just for the fun of it. The idea that anyone might not want to understand the difference between a fresnel lens and an optical pancake lens, even as a passing thought, keeps me up at night.

From talking to other new authors, it feels like this is not an uncommon problem. Anyone who’s working in a space that has some area of specialty feels this pain. You could be digging into corset making in the 17th century or researching bookbinding in the 18th. Faster than light travel? Bleeding edge automotive engineering? Any time I meet a starter author in a critique group or at a writing event, I hear the same concern.

“I don’t want to dumb it down.” Which is often followed by, “Readers are smart, they’ll know if I’m faking it.”

I know, in my case at least, this is a very “young” set of ideas that haven’t yet come in contact with the realities of finding an audience. Research leads to deeper understanding, not just of the subject matter itself, but of the way any given subject is commonly presented and understood. By doing the research, the author gets to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. They consult the experts, read the material, and if they’re lucky, they get to hear all the cool stories. The job from there should be using this new understanding to add believability to the worlds and characters, but sometimes the desire to show just how cool the subject really is overrides the more pressing needs of the narrative.

And, because I’m just that kind of person, I started to examine my own fears around this process. What about this research, this deeper understanding, compels you to add more, to wander off into the weeds a bit as you craft your story? I mean, after all, we do the research in order to build a believable world. Why does that believability come with such a high narrative cost? Why is “dumbing down” the response we have as writers to something that is often intended to be a support piece, rather than the core of everything? And, as such self-examinations usually provide, I found a couple of recurring themes rolling around in my head. I don’t know if they’re in your head too, but let’s take a look.

But there’s so much more to know…
One of the things I run across is that the “popularly understood” version of a thing is often not at all nuanced. When you start to dig into something, well, to misquote a popular ogre, “it’s got layers.”

Image of Shrek and Donkey with "Layers!" across the bottom
Source: I made this from a screenshot using Photoshop.

The reader, however, is often only familiar with the final image or the action they’ve been instructed to take. They are blissfully unaware of the handwaving that gets done in service of communication of an idea. Because, while it might be nice to know that radiation comes in a myriad of types, ranging from the optically pretty to the kill-you-dead, most people just know enough to put on sunscreen even if it’s cloudy. The depth and breadth of the subject matter has already, repeatedly been edited by experts down to the immediate day to day useful. To bring research into writing is merely a question of editing, something we writers are required to develop as a skill. We are focused on making a subject useful to our story and as such to our readers.

Those decisions you make around just what pieces of your research to include are not “dumbing it down,” they are making it more accessible.

Bringing the receipts
There is a certain hesitation in researching outside of your wheelhouse. Decades of being told to “stay in our lane” at work, at school, in society, on the freeway — okay, maybe it’s a valid criticism on the freeway — mean that many of us are nervous about getting called out for a misstep, or a factual error. Remember in the premiere of The Expanse, when Uncle Mateo pops open his helmet in a hard vacuum to readjust a wire, then closes it up again?

Image of the Open Helmet Scene from The Expanse
Source: https://www.syfy.com/the-expanse/photos/the-science-of-the-expanse-season-1-episode-6#196535

Where research is concerned, it feels like new writers try very hard to convey that right answer within the text itself. To stop the question of veracity before it even leaves a reader’s lips (or keyboard). This is especially true when the research we’ve done uncovers a fact or a figure or an image that goes against the idea most people have in their heads. In the case of The Expanse, it was the idea that a person could be exposed to hard vacuum and, well, not explode. After all, everybody knows that air pressure is what holds people together and if your suit gets opened up, then WHAMMO.

They got called out on it. It probably would have been nice if everyone had just shrugged and said “oh, they must have discovered something new about space,” rather than pointing fingers. But since they did their research, they had the more nuanced answer to hand (see “There’s so much more to know” above) when they needed it. Maybe not the perfectly correct answer, but their depiction was accurate enough once people started asking the question. This exchange turned into a moment of dialogue between the author and reader that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

It’s a dialogue, not a monologue…
It’s those dialogues, whether it’s on Twitter or around the dining table, that can illuminate just how effective making those facts accessible can be. Writing shares the same flaws as any other form of communication. In order to make valuable use of your research, you’re going to want to simplify it as much as the pacing and cadence of your story requires. Not because your readers won’t understand, not because you’re “dumbing it down,” but because you need to make that information accessible. Accessible engenders discussion and discussion becomes a teachable moment.

So do your research, distill it down and use it to support your stories. You’re not insulting anybody by simplifying. You’re not going to lose readers by failing to provide a three page explanation on the physics of magma to support exactly why a lava tube is on the lee side of the volcano for your hero to escape through. (Though, if you have access to that paper, could you send it along so I can have a look?)

The idea that a streamlined, accessible story can only be had at the expense of “dumbing down” your research needs to die. Once you’re past that, then your work really starts to live.

Photo of Kimberly Unger KIMBERLY UNGER made her first videogame back when the 80-column card was the new hot thing and followed that up with degrees in English/Writing from UC Davis and Illustration from the Art Center College of Design. Nowadays she produces narrative games, lectures on the intersection of art and code for UCSC’s master’s program, and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change humanity. [Unger writes about fast robots, big explosions, and space things.] She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works in the future of virtual reality on the Meta-Oculus gaming platform.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Saara El-Arifi! The Final Strife, her epic fantasy debut novel and the first book in The Ending Fire trilogy, is scheduled to release in the US and Canada on June 21 and the UK on June 23. It’s described as a novel with “roots in the mythology of Africa and Arabia that ‘sings of rebellion, love, and the courage it takes to stand up to tyranny’ (Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree)”—and one in which “three women band together against a cruel empire that divides people by blood.”

Cover of The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Routes to my roots
By Saara El-Arifi

Image of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, 1793.

Though this article is entitled Routes to my Roots, it isn’t really about me. Instead, this is dedicated to the Black women who came before. Six months ago, I had never heard of Phillis Wheatley. Now, it’s rare a day passes where her name doesn’t cross my mind. Her story is a tragic one, though not uncommon; enslaved in West Africa and brought to America to serve the Wheatley family. It was when Wheatley put pen to paper for the first time that her destiny diverged from the norm, and she became the first Black person in the western world to publish any form of literature. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1793 to the bemusement of the world’s scholars. Here was an educated African writing poetry! How quaint! And a woman! How delightful!

Wheatley was the subject of harsh scholarly criticism stemming from racism. Though this criticism has evolved, it hasn’t gone away. Many Black critics of the twentieth century condoned her writings as mere reflections of her indoctrination into white life. And it cannot be denied that the poem ‘On coming to America’ heralds her capture from Africa as ‘mercy’. But as I read through the damning accounts of her work, claiming she sounded too whitewashed in her writings, I began to see the shards of a mirror looking back at me. I cannot and will not claim to have lived through the trauma of enslavement, but the echoes of the criticism still struck me between the eyes. As Wheatley wasn’t just the first Black person to publish literature, she was the first writer of the Black diaspora.

Her conflicting double identities of African and American placed her in a unique space that paved the way for writers like me. We straddle multiple worlds but belong in neither. Is my identity fully African and fully European, or am I half of each? I don’t speak of genetics here, my heritage is predominantly North and West African, but what of the part of me that isn’t blood and bone and flesh?

Race in itself is a concept imagined, it is a fallacy that it is based in the biological as genetic disparity is as vast for those within one category as those without it. But what Phillis Wheatley calls on, is not a reckoning of race, but an acknowledgment of her existence. Assimilation is a dangerous tool of empire, it erases one’s past identity while adapting to a new cultural standard. But once that has happened, who are you? A Black body with white words?

These are the challenges Phillis Wheatley faced, the ripples of which still permeate through writers of the diaspora today. My battle with my conflicting identities led me to creating a world that is wholly me. The Final Strife is set in a land that is both beautiful and broken. Plagued by issues of empire, while also celebrating arab and afro culture, queerness and gender non-conformity, it is the product of my lived experience. To truly know me is to walk a day in the Wardens’ Empire—the ruling country in The Final Strife.

In order to publish her poetry Wheatley was forced to include endorsements of those who had tested her intellect, to prove she, a Black woman, had indeed written the poems. As I scanned the list of men who had provided signatories in order to allow this Black woman to publish, these white gatekeepers, I am reminded of how, in many different ways, these barriers often still exist. This should have been a disheartening feeling, but it wasn’t, because it made me realise how far we have to go. I cannot wait to read more fantasy worlds borne of cultures outside of Europe, to discover new writers finding new identities, new stories and characters.

Now I said Wheatley’s story was a tragic one. And though she found fame and success, she died at thirty-one, penniless. Many consider her unsuccessful in her endeavours since she had no money to her name, but her achievements spread out across time, through generations. We are the ones made richer for knowing her.

Photo of Saara El-Arifi
Photo Credit: Mustafa Raee
With a DNA profile that lights up like a satellite photograph of earth, Saara El-Arifi’s heritage is intrinsically linked to the themes she explores in her writing.

She was raised in the Middle East until her formative years, when her family swapped the Abu Dhabi desert for the English Peak District hills. This change of climate had a significant impact on her growth—not physically, she’s nearly 6ft—and she learned what it was to be Black in a white world.

Saara knew she was a storyteller from the moment she told her first lie. Though her stories have developed beyond the ramblings of a child, she still appreciates the thrill of a well-told tale.

THE FINAL STRIFE is Saara El-Arifi’s debut novel, the first part of a trilogy inspired by Ghanaian folklore and Arabian myths.