Nathan‘s Interview with Saara El-Arifi
I had the pleasure of interviewing Saara El-Arifi about her Ending Fire Trilogy, currently comprising of The Final Strife and the newly released The Battle Drum. You can find my review of The Battle Drum here.
This review is spoiler-free except for one clearly marked spoiler question.
1. Before anything else, can you give a quick elevator pitch for your book? Who would be interested in The Final Strife and The Battle Drum?
The Ending Fire trilogy is set in a world where power and class is dictated by the colour of your blood. In the first novel, The Final Strife, the story follows three women as they light the spark of revolution against an authoritarian regime. In The Battle Drum, that spark becomes a raging fire as the three women prepare for war. This series is for lovers of epic fantasy featuring messy characters, raw portrayals of found family, and unflinching themes of colonisation.
What first inspired you to write The Final Strife?
The Final Strife started off as a passion project and a study of my own identity. I couldn’t really imagine the novel being traditionally published as it didn’t fit the mould of what publishers deemed commercial. So I wrote the novel for me first and foremost. I explored my multicultural heritage, queerness, experiences of racism and then I delved into history. I built a world where I could belong but also demonstrated those feelings of Otherness.
The Final Strife and The Battle Drum tackle issues of discrimination in a lot of ways, most notably ideologies around the different blood colours. How does fantasy allow you to explore these important social issues in a way that maybe other genres cannot?
The possibilities of the fantasy genre are what make me love it so much. I chose to tackle and parallel certain themes like class structure, racism and colourism, and yet at the same time I was able to create a queernormative world that is accepting of all genders and sexulaities. There is no other genre that could give me the flexibility to create and contour a world in this way. And also magic. Magic rules.
In The Battle Drum we learn that the power levels attributed to the different blood levels are not all they are made out to be. Did you go into The Battle Drum explicitly looking to critique and subvert the biological determinism we often see in fantasy magic systems?
Although I did seek to overhaul a lot of staples within the fantasy genre, the subversion of biological determinism was more of a commentary on racial discourse. So often we are led to believe that biology is a factor in the categorisation of race, when actually race was created to be a tool for nationalism. Once the construct of race came into being, so too did the lies e.g. for years people believed that Black people were less intelligent. Thankfully we’ve moved on from ideologies like this, but the echoes of those beliefs still permeate. So by dispelling the myth that only Embers can bloodwerk I’m reflecting on how education and news circulation can reinforce a narrative that isn’t true, but also highlighting that biological essentialism is total b*llocks.
***END OF SPOILER SECTION***
Your books have a lot of queer representation. How did you approach including queer characters in your work?
This came quite naturally to me as most of the characters walked into my head as they appeared on the page. I took quite an intersectional approach when building the world that I had to make a decision very early on that it was going to be queernormative. It allows for moments of queer joy which provides some respite from the horrors of the empire.
The Final Strife and The Battle Drum both follow (roughly) three main POV characters – Anoor, Sylah, and Hassa. Do you have a favourite POV character that you particularly like writing for? Do you have a non-POV character that you absolutely love writing?
I have a huge soft spot for Hassa. She’s such a complex and interesting character that I’ve come to love. She started off as a side character but kept reappearing so I knew I had to listen to her more closely. And I’m glad I did!
Nayeli, a new character in The Battle Drum is also another favourite of mine, she’s quite intense, and that proved a nice balance when I was writing.
In my humble opinion The Battle Drum entirely avoids the dreaded “middle book syndrome”. Was it easier or harder to write The Battle Drum than The Final Strife? Did you experience any particular challenges with The Battle Drum?
Ah thank you so much! I loved writing The Battle Drum. It came so easy to me–which I cringe as I say because I know so many authors struggle with book twos–but it truly was a pleasure to write. I learned so much through the editing process of The Final Strife and each day I think I become a better writer.
I couldn’t pick my jaw up for the entire second half of The Battle Drum because of all of the twists and reveals. As an author how do you decide how much information to give to the reader at a time? How do you balance giving it all away vs. stringing the reader along?
I love twists so much that I’m yet to write a book that doesn’t have 2-3 twists in the last third. It is a careful balance of seeding them throughout and sometimes I can be blind to the impact of the reveal once I know it and have to rely on editors to guide me. I normally make one of the twists slightly more obvious so the reader has some gratification in figuring it out, but there is usually one extra I pop out with at the last minute.
What are your future plans for the series? Do you have ideas for any spinoffs?
I’m in the thick of drafting book three at the moment. I’ll never say never about spinoffs, but I do think the three women’s journeys will come to an end in the final novel. I realise that sounds more ominous than it’s meant to! No one dies at the end…(or do they?).
I saw that you recently announced a new trilogy starting with Faebound. Can you tell us a little bit about that series? Will it be similar or radically different from the current series?
Faebound takes place in a world where humans and fae are long dead, survived only by the elves that now rule and fight over the remaining lands. It centres on Yeeran Teila, a colonel who becomes exiled, and her sister Lettle, a seer. Like the Ending Fire trilogy, it engages with my multicultural roots drawing on Arabian and West African lore, it is queernormative (and sapphic) but is on the lighter side of epic fantasy–in content and in weight, clocking in at 380 pages. Though it still deals with some pretty large themes, like occupation and war-torn states, it required less reckoning with the past than the Ending Fire trilogy. I really loved bringing these new characters to life and I’m looking forward to readers getting to know them!