REVIEW: The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

Last Updated on January 29, 2023

The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi is an incredible book that gripped me from the very start and didn’t let go…and it still hasn’t, days after I finished it.

The Final StrifeIt is an African and Arabic inspired fantasy and El-Arifi paints a vivid and rich world that feels different yet similar to other fantasy epics. In many ways, The Final Strife is a story we’ve heard before. The obscenely wealthy live in gilded palaces enjoying a soft and comfortable life, feasting on the labours of those demonised by society. Yet El-Arifi’s depiction of the casual brutality faced by those marginalised souls shocked me, no mean feat in a genre where it feels like every horrific crime that could be committed by a ruler already has.

Grimdark lovers will appreciate the casual brutality of the red-blooded Embers, who chop off the hands and tongues of the clear-blooded Ghostings a few days after they are born to keep them in line. The Dusters, blue-blooded, are one rung up from the Ghostings but still treated terribly by the Embers, who seem to execute whoever they want to on a whim, with some Dusters killed for writing. Oh and they do it in a very creative and bloody way through ‘Ripping’, which involves a rack and the offender’s limbs being stretched until death is a mercy. Yep.

By about page 50, El-Arifi had built the world in my mind and then we raced through events at a pace that felt quick but not overwhelmingly so. I loved her use of blood in The Final Strife and how it divides people into different social classes. It was a great commentary on society without being too overt – and later developments emphasised this connection even more.

We follow three women, all unique and interesting characters in their own right. In classic Grimdark style, they are flawed and imperfect. They have their own agendas and missions and are happy to leave others trailing in the wake of their destructive and ambitious paths. The other characters are even less likable and all seem to have their own agendas which the three main characters have to navigate.

Sylah is a failed revolutionary. An incredible fighter whose spirit was broken when her family were murdered before her. She was meant to be the chosen one but it didn’t happen and by the start of The Final Strife, she has descended into a drug addicted mess. I’m very pleased with how El-Arifi showed the consequences of Sylah’s addiction and didn’t conveniently write them away as the stakes rose. Your heart bleeds for Sylah and you want her to win – yet she makes constant poor decisions throughout and they are both realistic and heartbreaking. She is also more than happy to hurt those closest to her to get what she wants. She has no qualms stealing from the Dustings to feed her addiction and rarely seems to do anything for anyone else. Violence and brutality comes easy to Sylah – as does a giant ego. She makes money by stealing and starring in a fighting ring – despite her biggest secret being the colour of her blood. If she suffered an injury or a cut then her secret would be exposed and everybody in the entire district would attempt to kill her. She doesn’t care.

Hassa is a Ghosting, ignored and sidelined by the arrogant upper classes – something she uses to her advantage to further the cause of her horrifically oppressed people. We are only fed drips of Hassa throughout The Final Strife but it’s clear she’ll have a huge role to play in the series. I would have liked some more time with her throughout the book just to give us a bit more information about her personality and relationships with other characters but I understand why El-Arifi didn’t want to give the game away.

The Final Strife’s third major narrator is Anoor, a sheltered soul who is inquisitive and intelligent but reviled and treated terribly by her mother, one of the most powerful people in the empire. She grew up in wealth and is a member of the ruling class, yet the circumstances of her childhood are truly horrific and it’s amazing seeing her growth throughout The Final Strife from an inconsequential character to a potential reformer and revolutionary. I liked Anoor. She brought an earnestness and warmness that illuminated an otherwise bleak story. However, I found her journey to be a bit unrealistic and her arc and final position didn’t completely work with the character she was described as at the start. Also, she shares a single mind. That being said, the book leaves her in a very interesting place and I’m excited to see what she does next.

Overall, this was a fantastic debut with great world building and a fresh yet familiar approach to empire and discrimination. I loved seeing the Ghanaian mythologies used and El-Arifi did a fantastic job of blending them with classic tropes like fighting trials to create a true fantasy epic. The sequel has jumped to the top of the list of books I’m excited for in 2023, and she could be one of the next big things in fantasy!

FIVE STARS

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Chron

Chron

Chron is a suffering journalist by day and loves to lose himself in magical worlds at night. Chron loves everything epic and has a soft spot for incredible warriors with even more incredible reputations (Hi Vaelin Al Sorna). He also enjoys a cheeky criminal caper and bleak fantasy where our heroes have no chance.