“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Sylah dreams of days growing up in the resistance, being told she would spark a revolution that would free the empire from the red-blooded ruling classes’ tyranny. That spark was extinguished the day she watched her family murdered before her eyes.

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This is a thick fantasy book, and only the first in an intended trilogy. It reminds me a lot of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, with a little bit of The Hunger Games thrown in. When the book has a map in the front, you know you’ll be doing some work!

In this land, everyone looks mostly the same on the outside – they are brown people, but their tattoos, clothes, etc. might differentiate them as one of three classes. But the real difference is underneath the skin, as these three classes are determined by blood color. Red for Embers, the ruling class; Blue for Dusters, the working class; and Clear for Ghostings, the servant class.

The Embers rule through four Wardens – Strength, Knowledge, Duty, and Truth. Every ten years, the Disciples of these four Wardens are promoted to be the new Wardens. Then new Disciples are chosen to train under them for the next ten years. They are chosen by holding a competition, which lasts over the course of several months.

We open with a storyteller, telling the story of The Sandstorm. About 20 years ago, twelve Ember babies were stolen overnight, and replaced with Duster babies. Most had been found and killed, but some wonder if any remain.

And then we meet Sylah. She is one of the Stolen, raised by Dusters to one day compete in the trials to become the Warden of Strength. But the training grounds of the Sandstorm were found and raided six years ago, when she was fifteen, and the people she was raised with were mostly killed. Since then, Sylah gets through her days by keeping herself drugged. She makes quick cash by fighting in an underground ring.

One night, her adoptive mother tells her that her real baby is being raised as the Warden of Strength’s daughter. In a drunken haze, Sylah decides to break into her quarters and see this other girl for herself. Thanks to some booby traps, though, the daughter of the Warden, Anoor, captures Sylah. Recognizing that she is on drugs, Anoor keeps her locked in her closet while she goes through withdrawals. Anoor has decided she wants to compete for the Disciple of Strength position, and, thinking Sylah is a trained assassin, she wants her to train her for the competition.

And y’all, this is just the first quarter or so of the book. Obviously, there are trainings, more withdrawal symptoms, competitions, and revelations on both sides as these two slowly begin to trust each other. We learn that there may be a new Sandstorm out there, reviving the old dream of overthrowing the Wardens. But whose win would be more effective in that pursuit: an Ember raised by Dusters, or a Duster raised by Embers?

There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here. If you’re in the mood to visit a juicy, in-depth, and sometimes violent fantasy world based on African lore – this one’s for you. “The Final Strife” comes out today, June 21st. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley.


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