Content warning: forced amputation, substance abuse, addiction, child abuse
Occasionally book components come together in a great way, and when I first learned of The Final Strife’s premise and saw its cover, I hoped the product would meet my expectations. Luckily, that is precisely what I received in Saara El-Arifi’s debut epic fantasy novel.
On an island known as the Warden’s Empire by its residents, lives a 20-year-old woman in constant mourning for the family and purpose she lost six years prior—and her role in their demise. Sylah is a trained warrior whose primary battle upon introduction is gaining a reliable joba seed—an herbal intoxicant—supplier. Watched over by her younger, Ghosting friend Hassa, whose concern for Sylah’s joba habit has led to her no longer enabling the addiction and leading Sylah home when she overindulges, Sylah finds that she has a few community connections despite her efforts to push them away. When Sylah suddenly learns that the purpose she once lost is still worthwhile, she does the most reckless thing she’s ever done: invades the home of the empire’s most lethal warden. What happens next leads to a journey of personal discovery through purpose and connections with others, a reckoning with the mission she’s never questioned, and revelations about the empire’s deepest secrets.
I’m always happy to read fantasy epics by authors of color, and The Final Strife is a standout for me. Though the world is highly oppressive and brutal—segregated by blood color with forced amputation of those with translucent blood, Ghostings, during infancy—queerness is a norm within society. We see a range of queer sexual and gender representation throughout the story in varying degrees of heroism and villainy. El-Arifi constructs an intricate narrative that builds on storylines fantasy readers are used to consuming—rebellion, national competition, underground economies, and love hinges. As a reader it was satisfying to question whether what we learn through any of the point-of-view characters’ eyes (there are at least five perspectives, with Sylah being the primary lens) is actually all there is to know. The intriguing aspect of this consideration is not that Sylah is an unreliable narrator per se but that there is much more going on around her than she’s ever paid attention or been privy to. The way these dynamics play out lead Sylah to several discoveries and understandings towards the end of the book, setting up what looks to be an enticing continuation of her story in the next addition to the trilogy.