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Nathan’s review of The Battle Drum by Saara El-Arifi

This review contains spoilers for The Final Strife, the first book in the Fire Ending Trilogy.

Fans of the first book in the Fire Ending Trilogy, The Final Strife, will likely be more than excited that the second book lives up to expectations.

The Battle Drum expands in all kinds of fun and exciting directions. The Final Strife readers who felt that the first book was a bit constrictive or small will be happy to know that El-Arifi dramatically expands the woldbuilding here. At the end of The Final Strife, Sylah and Jond (the latter really against his wishes) were traveling beyond the borders of the Warden’s Empire to try and save the world from worsening climatic conditions (to put it lightly!). They spend this book exploring the main continent across the sea. In doing so, El-Arifi is able to stretch some of her worldbuilding muscles. The continent has a very strange ecology – our protagonists encounter terrifying predators, giant mushroom cities, as well as new environmental disasters that are tearing the world apart.

On the continent, Sylah and Jond also learn about how bloodwerk operates beyond the Warden’s Empire. I really liked how El-Arifi approached this element. Without getting into spoilers, she carefully constructs a brand new worldview/ideology around the blood magic we learned about in The Final Strife. Too often epic fantasy authors fail to make an expanding magic system feel authentic or plausible. Normally when characters go into a new land they learn about a new type of magic they have never experienced before, as if magic somehow follows sociopolitical boundaries. El-Arifi doesn’t do this. Instead, she shows how different cultures, their history, their ideologies, and their biases impact how they perceive and practice the magic, while still following the rules of magic introduced in the first book.

The expansion of the book’s plot beyond the Warden’s Empire means that we also get a lot of answers for some of the lingering mysteries left at the end of The Final Strife. Going into The Battle Drum, we know that there is a world beyond the Empire, we know that there are people with yellow blood, and we know that the deadly tidewinds are getting worse and worse. I am happy to let you know that all of these mysteries get answered in The Battle Drum. El-Arifi brings out so much history in the world in this book; she isn’t holding things back! There are a couple of places where the characters don’t learn crucial information due to inconvenient circumstances, but El-Arifi usually provides those answers in due time. For those of you who are intrigued by the history of the larger world, the last 1/3 of the book is a totally wild and page-turning experience.

While this book completely worked for me and I tore through the 500+ pages in about two days, some readers may be a tad disappointed in what the The Battle Drum offers. Readers who hate multi-POV books where the main POV characters are largely separated from each may get frustrated with this book. We get the story namely from five major POV characters who are separated into three plot-lines. I’m not sure if this is the slightest of spoilers, but the characters in each of the plot threads largely don’t communicate with one another nor interact. Therefore we don’t’ get any of the fun moments of Sylah and Anoor’s developing relationship, nor Sylah and Hassa’s friendship. This books does what many “second books” duo and expands the world and flings its characters across it. El-Arifi also ensures there is a world-changing or gut wrenching cliffhanger each time we switch which plot thread we are currently following. These kept me tearing through the (proverbial and digital) pages, but other readers may just be annoyed. I should also point out that the ending of The Battle Drum is not quite as strong as The Final Strife, which left us with so many great cliffhangers. The Battle Drum nicely sets up the conflict for the (presumably) third and final book, but the plot and characters arcs just kind of “stop” rather than conclude.

Speaking of POV characters, Sylah and Anoor are both back as major players in the narrative. Anoor was by far my favorite character from The Final Strife, and it is a lot of fun here to see her embody her more assertive confidence she attained in the previous book in her new role as disciple. I will say that while her character is still my favorite because of her depth and development, her plot arc might be the weakest here. She is trapped in a not very interested murder mystery where she keeps stumbling because she has less information than the other characters. I was very happy to see that Hassa had a much larger role in this book; her developing romantic relationship with Kwame was a real highlight in terms of small character moments in feelings where so much of the book is about the macro world stuff.

We also get two (?) new POV characters in this book. Jond ascends the ranks to full POV status (I think – I don’t remember him being a POV character in The Final Strife. At first I found this annoying because I did not like Jond (even before we found how his big betrayals), but as the The Battle Drum developed I liked him more and more. El-Arifi does a lot of really humanize him and process the complex positions he navigates in the world. Still my least favorite POV character, but I didn’t dread his chapters like I thought I would when I started! The other new POV character is a new character named Nayeli. Nayeli leaps off the page from the get-go, full of personality. I was drawn into her tragic backstory, while also figuring out the role she plays in the larger narrative. Her POV chapters take many turns I was not expecting!

Before wrapping up this review I also want to point to the major themes that El-Arifi explores in The Battle Drum. She continues her exploration of race and racism, and her critique of biological determinism is even more present here. Epic fantasy often has a problem of naturalizing race (like, as much as I love it, Avatar: The Last Airbender giving each ethnic group a different kind of magic). I can’t get into too much depth here without going full on spoiler, but El-Arifi subverts these tropes in many interesting ways. She also introduces concepts of dogma, religious intolerance, and adherence to prophecy. She shows how our unquestioning devotion to a single creed can cloud our worldviews and make us singularly focused. I should note that part of this does involve the introduction of the chosen one trope (for anyone either looking for this or to avoid this); the chosen one plot never really resolves itself so I don’t know if El-Arifi is leaning into the trope or subverting it.

I know I pointed out some flaws in this book, but I want to reiterate that I only did so to demonstrate to some readers why this book might not work for them as well as The Final Strife did. I personally loved this book and I am eagerly awaiting the next book!

Concluding Thoughts: A page turning sequel, The Battle Drum dramatically expands the world of The Final Strife, while solving many of the trilogy’s key mysteries. El-Arifi further develops all of my favorite characters while introducing several fascinating new ones. Don’t miss this epic follow up!

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Battle Drum!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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