I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Everything about The Final Strife‘s general description made me excited to read it. In an empire built on a literal blood-based caste system, Sylah is one of the Stolen: a child of the highest caste (Embers, whose blood is red) kidnapped as a baby by a working class extremist group (Dusters, whose blood is blue) and raised to infiltrate and destroy the leadership structure. Sylah’s best friend, Hassa, is one of the Ghostings (whose blood is clear), the lowest class of servants who, in retaliation for an attempted coup four hundred years ago, have their tongues and hands cut off at birth. Hassa has a secret mission of her own which impacts Sylah’s life more than once throughout the story. Sylah is hooked on a powerful drug and makes her money as the champion in the crime boss’s fighting ring. When a former love she thought long dead returns, Sylah’s path of self-destruction changes to one of vengeance, which how she ends up in the Warden of Strength’s tower, completely high on her drug of choice, and is taken hostage by the Warden’s daughter, Anoor. Except Anoor isn’t who she appears to be, and the three women’s association begins a series of events that made me lose sleep, because I could not put this book down.
Saara El-Arifi masterfully flips a series of fantasy and YA tropes right off a cliff, and it’s brilliant. Sylah is set up from the beginning as a “chosen one”, but her drug addiction and guilt are real hinderances to the path the reader might expect her to take. Even her martial abilities are fully explained, so there’s no possibility of any magical Mary Sue accusations in her character. Anoor is a wonderfully flawed, completely innocent, and privileged foil to Sylah’s jaded attitude, but Anoor also becomes a fully rounded out person over the course of her story. Every time I thought I could predict what was coming next, El-Arifi surprised me.
There is plenty of intrigue and violence in The Final Strife, some of which is exceptionally harsh but never gratuitous. The standard punishment for Dusters and Ghostings, ripping, is as horrific as it sounds. The world and society El-Arifi built in The Final Strife is richly detailed, based on Ghanian and Arabian stories and myths. The Final Strife is a five star first book in a unique new fantasy series, and I’ve already marked the second book in the series to order as soon as possible.