(2022) Saara El-Arifi, Harper Voyager, £16.99, hrdbk, 481pp, ISBN 978-0-008-45040-3
The Final Strife is the debut novel of Saara El-Arifi and is a standalone, secondary world novel.
The society the novel depicts is split into three castes based on blood colour, which is also shown in other racial characteristics. The Embers are the dominant group who rule the society through the power of their red blood, which allows them to access magic through symbols written in blood. The Dusters are a lower class, their blue blood marking them for a role in the fields, army or other similar mundane roles. The clear blooded Ghostlings are servants, with their hands and tongue removed as babies as a punishment for a past rebellion and deterrent for future action.
The leaders of the Ember are chosen through a series of trials, the winner of which becomes the deputy leaders and then take the place of the leaders on a 10 year cycle. Sylar is born as an Ember, but taken from her birth parents as a baby and brought up as a Duster. Sylar was raised and train to win one of the leadership trials. She was intended to be one of a group of children, in these circumstances, to launch a rebellion, take over the society and to change the inequalities that exist. However the rebellion failed, leaving Sylar living a hidden life.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, themes of race and identity dominate the narrative, but these are well embedded in the story rather than being disconnected or preachy. The Embers maintain their supremacy because they have access to magic, but they rely on Dusters for their army, so realistically their supremacy is enforced by other castes being compliant, turning the Dusters against the Ghostlings, who have historically rebelled and, perhaps, have greatest cause to do so. The Dusters can always see that their lives could be worse and take comfort in being superior to the Ghostlings. This can be seen as an analogy of the middle classes or the way white people who are less well off still support other white people, even though it is to their detriment.
Sylar is in a unique position because she communicates with the Ghostlings and has learnt their sign language so she can listen to what they have to say. This means that she has limited access to all three castes, although she does not feel she belongs to any of them. El-Arifi, arguably, uses this to demonstrate that even in a radically unequal society, compassion and empathy can help us to understand anotherís plight. This might then help us, as it does Sylar, as well as the people we are compassionate to.
The plot goes at a good pace and keeps the reader gripped through the twists and turns. The world building is stunning. The complexities of the society and world that has been created is so very believable. This is an excellent read that I highly recommend.
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