Esmay Rosalyne’s Spoiler-Free Review of The Battle Drum by Saara El-Arifi
See also Nathan’s review of The Battle Drum.
Publication date: 25 May 2023
Series: Book 2 in The Ending Fire trilogy
Genre: Adult Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Queer Fantasy
Rating: 4.5 stars
*Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of this book from NetGalley and HarperCollins UK in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
Murder. Secrets. Sacrifice: Three women seek the truth of the empire’s past. And the truth they find has the power to ignite a war in the sequel to The Final Strife, the continuation of a visionary fantasy trilogy inspired by Africa and Arabia.
Anoor is the first blue-blooded ruler of the Wardens’ Empire. But when she is accused of a murder she didn’t commit, her reign is thrown into turmoil. She must solve the mystery and clear her name without the support of her beloved, Sylah.
Sylah braves new lands to find a solution for the hurricane that threatens to destroy her home. But in finding answers, she must make a decision, does she sacrifice her old life in order to raise up her sword once more?
Hassa’s web of secrets grows ever thicker as she finds herself on a trail of crimes in the city. Her searching uncovers the extent of the atrocities of the empire’s past and present. Now, she must guard both her heart and her land.
The three women find their answers, but they’re not the answers they wanted. The drumbeat of change thrums throughout the world.
And it sings a song of war.
Ready we will be, when the Ending Fire comes,
When the Child of fire brings the Battle Drum,
The Battle Drum,
The Battle Drum.
Ready we will be, for war will come.
Review of The Battle Drum
Now, THIS is how you write a sequel! I’ve made it no secret that I adored The Final Strife, but I somehow wasn’t prepared for how incredible this sequel was going to be. The Battle Drum takes everything that was amazing about book 1 and just cranks it up to eleven.
This book picks up almost immediately where the last one left off and we hit the ground running. The three main female leads are all off on their own personal journeys, desperately trying to stay alive in a world where death is lurking around every corner and nothing and no one can be trusted at face value.
The pacing slows down significantly compared to the wild rollercoaster that was book 1, which was exactly what was needed for this story and these characters to develop to their full potential. At this point, I am just so emotionally invested in this story because the character work is simply THAT good. Everyone, from the main protagonists down to the most minor side characters, just jumps off the page with personality and that makes them feel so vibrant and alive.
The three main female leads absolutely steal the show though. I really appreciate that they all have such realistically messy personal journeys and that they are all equally flawed yet strong in their own unique ways. At first I was a bit nervous about the fact that some of my favourite characters were separated in this instalment, but that concern quickly flew out the window once I started reading.
I did end up preferring two of the storylines over the other, but there wasn’t a single dull moment in this book for me. It doesn’t matter who is together on page, every single character interaction and scene just hits. El-Arifi has a true gift for creating compelling and complex relationships, of all natures, that tug on your heartstrings in the best way possible.
Also, heck yes for a queer-normative world, give me allll the queer love!!!
There was also a very intriguing and mysterious new POV introduced in this sequel that I absolutely loved. I had SO much fun trying to figure out who this person was and how their storyline would interweave with all the others.
If you pay close enough attention, you can pick up on the breadcrumbs and puzzle the pieces together yourself, which made for such a satisfying and rewarding reading experience. This book is just full of crazy twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat the entire way through.
Speaking of crazy twists and turns… the revelations about the world building and magic system were absolutely phenomenal. I already loved this world from the few glimpses we’d gotten of it in book 1, but it was truly awe-inspiring to realise the full depth and breadth of this world here.
There’s so much mystery and intrigue woven into the history, lore, religion and magic of these lands, and I loved seeing everything start to unravel as our characters made some truly shocking and earth-shattering discoveries.
Familiar tropes like prophecy and chosen ones are also incorporated into the story in new and clever ways to create one of the most exciting and unpredictable fantasy stories that I have read in a while.
Now, fair warning, El-Arifi does not shy away from the darker and more disturbing content. The stakes are immensely high and I really appreciated that the characters really have to deal with the repercussions of their actions here. There were some absolutely shocking and gut wrenching scenes in here that are branded into my memory forever, but that made this read all the more impactful.
Difficult themes of racism, discrimination, gender identity, sexuality, disability, addiction, toxic (familial) relationships and religious zealotry are also explored in meaningful and deep ways without ever feeling on-the-nose or overbearing.
With effortless grace, El-Arifi has crafted a fun and entertaining fantasy story that still tackles some heavy real-life issues. And while this might only be her second book, I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a master of her craft already.
All in all, I think this is one of the better sequels that you will find in the fantasy genre. If you liked The Final Strife, then I truly can’t see how you won’t enjoy The Battle Drum. These characters have secured a place in my heart and I truly can’t wait to discover what they are up to next, even though I have a feeling I should prepare for emotional destruction.The Ending Fire trilogy is quickly becoming one of my all-time favourites and I can’t recommend it highly enough!