Sustaining imperialism and empire requires that a society tell its youth stories of glory and honor. Aiza has heard these stories and dreams of becoming a knight and serving the Bayt-Sajji Empire, even though her Ornu people were recently colonized. The life that waits for her when she goes into training to become a squire is more complicated and dangerous than she expected. Her decision to hide her Ornu heritage only adds to the danger.
As Aiza trains to become a squire, she makes friends and enemies. She trains with Husni the wealthy dreamer, Basem the royal rule follower, and Sahar the strong tough girl. Aiza is headstrong, but hiding deep insecurities and it is clear that she may fail in her quest. And the cost of failure will be high. Any wash outs are immediately sent to the front lines as infantry in a never ending war the Bayt-Sajji are fighting. Just as Aiza is on the brink of losing everything, she happens on an opportunity to be trained by a former knight. As she secretly gains new skills, her chances improve. Yet, as her goal gets within her grasp, the cost of what she hopes to achieve becomes clearer. Will she close her eyes to the pain her Ornu people are suffering under the Empire, or will she stand up for them and jeopardize her chance at being a knight someday at possibly the cost of her life?
Writer Shammas sets up an intriguing fantasy world with distinct historical ties to the peoples of the Middle East, in particular the Bedouins. She fills this world with a cast of characters that could come from all parts of our world. There are many intriguing ideas explored as well. How does a colonized people become integrated into a conquering power? What power do ‘stories’ have over us and who gets to tell them? Is it more important to win the battle or be alive to write the story of the battle? What is the value of friendship? Can friendship survive keeping secrets, even if well-intentioned? At points, there might be too many ideas vying for space in this story. The narrative feels rushed as we reach the climax because so many ideas have been put in play. I could imagine a trilogy of stories needed to unwind this complicated tale. Unfortunately, the motivations of the antagonist are also not well defined. There is a lot of figurative mustache twirling sans mustache.
The art and colors by Alfageeh are solid, particularly the colors. She draws clean lines and keeps the art realistic without being overly detailed. The landscape and buildings are excellent and evoke a sense of place well. Her faces occasionally lack definition and balance, yet the coloring helps the reader keep track of who is who. Her description of her process in the afterword is illuminating and welcome.
Squire is really a must buy for most public and school libraries. Even though a fantasy, it’s a story set in a thinly veiled historical Middle East told by a Palestinian-American writer and Jordanian-American artist. It adds much needed diversity to our graphic novel collections and kids will likely enjoy Aiza, her friends and the action. They will also benefit from the conscientious look at what it takes to sustain a colonizing empire and its effects on the peoples it oppresses.
By Nadia Shammas
Art by Sara Alfageeh
Quill Tree, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Jordanian-American, Palestinian-American,