“Love may give you strength, but retribution gives you purpose.”
These are the commanding—if not deeply traumatizing—words that drive our main protagonist, Sylah. Stolen as a child from the ruling caste by a group known as the Sandstorm, her entire upbringing, learning, and body have been formed to bring down the empire from the inside. But after witnessing the death of the revolutionaries that raised and trained her, she resorts to a sensory-dampening drug and occasional ring fights to sustain herself. Despite her tough demeanor and hard-earned combat skills, Sylah still dreams of a revolution that was brutally snuffed out years ago. When the Aktibar—a series of trials of combat and skill designed to find new leaders for the empire—begins, Sylah realizes this is an opportunity to finish what the Sandstorm began a long time ago.
But destroying an empire has never been straightforward. After encountering Anoor, the daughter of the Warden of Strength (and the most powerful ruler of the empire), Sylah begins questioning her methods, and even her heart.
The Final Strife is a sweeping African and Arabian novel featuring three powerful, capable women intent on changing (or in Sylah’s case, destroying) an empire that is built upon a cruel caste system. Teeming with secrets, privilege, revolution, and colonialism, Saara El-Arifi’s epic fantasy offers peril, sapphic romance, and complex characters navigating overwhelmingly unfair odds. Focusing on three characters—Hassa, a maimed spy and servant; Anoor, daughter of the powerful Warden of Strength; and Sylah, our revolutionary turned trainer for the enemy—the novel is also a commentary on slavery and hierarchy as explained through a blood-color caste system.
As El-Arifi explains: “Red is the blood of the elite, of magic, of control. Blue is the blood of the poor, of workers, of the resistance. Clear is the blood of the slaves, of the crushed, of the invisible.” Blue-blooded (Dusters) and clear-blooded (Ghostings) people are forbidden from positions of power, whereas red-blooded people (Embers) frequently train in the blood magic that allows them so much power. Hassa, our clear-blooded third protagonist, communicates mostly in sign language, as all Ghosts are mutilated by Embers to prevent any verbal communication between them. Despite her hatred for Embers, Sylah herself is one, while Anoor occupies a much more confusing position. This makes for interesting and complex conversations between the three of them as they navigate a hierarchy that they may be opposed to, but still participate in.
Hassa, Anoor, and Sylah are all intelligent, independently-thinking women, but El-Arifi makes it clear where they have been influenced and how the cruel world has shaped them into tools of service. Anoor may be naïve where Sylah is street smart; Hassa is simply leagues above them in awareness, even if she lacks a particular physical strength. They also embody the complexities behind revolutionary politics: Anoor believes the empire can change from within if she is strong enough and respectful enough; Sylah wants to watch it all burn and build something new from the ashes. (Hassa is playing a 4D chess compared to these two, but I won’t spoil her style of revolution). It’s a wonderfully complex observation of on how far respectability goes in revolution.
The Final Strife isn’t just a commentary on the violence of a caste system, but an upfront, gritty, and simultaneously sweeping epic fantasy about a young woman’s pursuit of revenge against an empire. I found myself drawn by the raw humanity in each of the characters—despite the enthralling world-building that El-Arifi pulls off (with triple, extra, brownie points for doing this through the use of griots and percussion), I never found myself too confused by the various political dramas that influence our characters’ trajectories. Nothing ever happens in this novel in a vacuum or by convenience. Even Sylah’s drug addiction lacks a magical fix in a world otherwise filled with blood magic and violent, nightly tidewinds. Similarly, Anoor must train relentlessly to even have a shred of hope of achieving her goals.
Hassa does not receive quite as much attention as the other two girls initially, but it’s apparent why as the novel progresses: there is much more to Hassa then even we, the seemingly sympathetic audience, are privy to. There’s a lovely inversion of the “chosen one” trope in the novel’s approach as well. Sylah is clever and passionate, but her addictions have lasting consequences, and it becomes apparent that her version of a revolution is no longer feasible. El-Arifi offers a humanizing portrayal of a character who is sick, rather than merely morally questionable.
Based on El-Arifi’s upbringing in Ghanian folklore and Arabian myths, the novel-world’s creation myths resemble Anansi the spider, and ufu permeates the scent of Sylah’s home. El-Arifi cites her experiences growing up in the Abu Dhabi desert as inspiration for the deadly tidewinds, where blue sand creates a lethal storm each night that affects people of all blood kinds alike—and, alongside the drums of griots, the deadly tidewinds evoke an immersive soundscape which enhances the reader’s experience. El-Arifi’s worldbuilding is extremely detailed, and takes place even in the margins of the novel, with passages from history books detailing dated events that tie directly into the novel-world’s current practices of violence and oppression. The novel also offers counter-narratives through the griots in the story, and of course our characters’ deep dives into lost and hidden histories.
While I rarely compare novels to one another, The Final Strife settles well into a host of other speculative authors unapologetically drawing from non-Western ways of knowing and pre and/or de-colonial histories and cultures in an industry that overwhelmingly minimizes their literary worth. Suyi Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm (2021), R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018), and Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne (2021), to name a few, are beyond a mere trend or fad, and form a league of novels in which I would now place The Final Strife.
In this novel, love may give strength, and retribution purpose, but a revolution needs both to be successful. Perhaps the more difficult thing is surviving to see these dreams come to fruition.