Interview with Saara El-Arifi (THE FINAL STRIFE)
Saara’s heritage has always been intrinsically linked to the themes of her stories. She was raised by a Ghanaian/British mother and a Sudanese/Arab father—who were both brought up Christian and Muslim respectively. When she was reaching her formative years her family moved from the Middle East to a village outside of Sheffield, Yorkshire. This change of climate had a significant impact on her growth—not physically, she’s nearly 6ft—and she learned what it was to be Black in a white world.
Saara initially specialised in theatre directing, achieving a 1st BA Hons in Theatre Studies from Kent University, a Diploma in Directing from RADA and a badge for acting from Brownies. Her creative writing and specialism in theatre led her to the big screen, where she worked in film marketing and communications for nearly a decade.
The Final Strife wasn’t her first novel to manifest onto paper, but it was the first story that refused to be ignored. It sold in the US to Del Rey books and to HarperVoyager in the UK in six-figure deals. It will be published simultaneously in 2022.
Welcome to the Hive, Saara. It’s so lovely to have you on our Women in SFF feature.
Firstly, congratulations on your debut! Can you tell us a bit about The Final Strife? Why should readers check out your work?
The Final Strife is set in a world ruled by blood, it’s the currency of the social order and the conduit of the magic system. The story follows three women: a red-blooded rebel turned drug addict, a blue-blooded masquerading as the ruler’s daughter, and a clear-blooded servant and spy. The novel begins at the start of the Aktibar trials—a competition to discover the next four rulers of the empire—and the stage is set for blood to flow. If you enjoy sprawling, epic fantasies that challenge the norms of the genre then this one is for you!
Just for fun, can you describe The Final Strife in five words?
Brutal, hopeful, epic, rebellious, searing
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I wish I was cool enough to say that I have a dedicated playlist that inspires me to write but truthfully, I have to write in silence, I find my characters too loud to compete with music. My writing process is quite chaotic, I have no structure, I just discover the story as I go along. When I do try and plot, I find that the truth of the story bucks against anything I try to constrain it with, and the story ends up going the opposite way to what I had intended. So now I just let the words flow and see what happens!
Speaking of worlds, The Final Strife has African and Arabic mythology and is set in a divided world where society’s hierarchy is determined by the colour of your blood. Could you tell us more about your inspiration behind this please?
Blood colour was a notion I really wanted to play with as it really challenges the concept of race as a biological factor. As a social construct, race is determined by skin colour purely because society has decided that is so, cementing this as fact during the development of nation states. By developing a world that categorises race based on blood colour I was able to parallel the oppression felt by racial groups but also comment on colourism. The choice of clear-blooded for the most victimised race in the empire, the Ghostings, was also a nod towards the silent legacy of enslaved people whose backs many countries were built upon—you might not see their blood, but it’s there in our history.
Blood magic always makes for an exciting magic system. Tell us more about how it works in your book!
The magic system in The Final Strife is called bloodwerk. It is a language-based system that uses blood. There are four foundational runes that allow you to manipulate objects using forces. Only the red-blooded nobility can bloodwerk, and they do so by using an inkwell, which is a metal cuff that helps guide a stylus towards their vein. The stylus then funnels blood to the tip and the user is then able to draw bloodwerk runes in their blood.
Let’s talk about your two main protagonists, Sylah and Anoor. Were their narratives easy to develop or did you come across any tricky parts? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
Sylah’s story came to me quite easily, perhaps because we’re alike in many ways—no I’m not a trained assassin—but her rage towards the status quo is something I carry with me too, and has helped guide my pen as I created the world of The Final Strife. Anoor was someone who developed overtime, in many ways she’s the antithesis to Sylah, and in more ways she’s the same. That was the tricky part, differentiating their tone and personalities for the reader to gauge the point of view without me sign-posting whose scene it was. A character that has grown over edits is Hassa, she’s a character that I was shamefacedly keeping far too silent in earlier drafts, but she crept in from the margins of the pages to really delight me with her presence. So much so she is one of the biggest character arcs in book two. I love writing her scenes.
Saara, we have to ask, if you were transported into your own novel, how do you think you would fare?!
Honestly, I would probably die within 24hours. It’d be an interesting 24hours though. I’d definitely hit all the market stalls and chow down on a LOT of food. But then as soon as night would fall, the tidewind would rip me to shreds. The nightly hurricane whips up the sand of the Farsai Desert into something deadly. It’d be an epic way to go though.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! Both your UK and US covers are beautiful and vastly different. How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I was lucky enough to get to work collaboratively with the team in both territories. I really wanted a cover with Sylah on the cover, and I’m still quite emotional when I see the US illustration. It’s so stunning and powerful to see an adult, epic fantasy portrayed in that way. Whereas in the UK we went with the more traditional fantasy book cover, but with a quite appropriate crack through the stone. I like to think of it as a metaphor for the way I approached the writing of the novel; subverting the classic European fantasy with a sledge hammer.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Robin Hobb, Samantha Shannon are just some of the influences that have shaped the writer I have become. In terms of collaboration, I’m not sure how I’d fare working alongside someone, it’s more that I’m not sure how they would fare working with me and my chaotic approach to storytelling!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I would absolutely ride an eru into battle. Erus are giant lizards that you can ride, and they feature in the world of The Final Strife. There’s an entire city dedicated to eru breeding so I’d go there and pick out the fastest one.
Pssst Saara, can you share with us a few teasers for your sequel? What more can readers expect to come?
The sequel promises to be an even more ambitious tale that takes the reader on a voyage through more twists and turns. I loved writing the sequel, it was such a joy to spend more time with the cast and throwing them into new scenarios. Scenarios like a sea monster….(zips mouth).
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
That change starts with a spark. That spark can form an idea, that idea can form a movement. And it’s only with movement that society can change and evolve. So go light that spark. Go start that rebellion.