It’s no secret that I am obsessed with the fantasy genre. Shadowhunters, faes, witches, wizards, demigods — I’ve read about them all. But I’ve always learned that fantasy as a genre has often overlooked the diverse world we live in. Very rarely do you see a female protagonist who you don’t just relate to, but also looks like you, and can play an imperative role in your life while growing up. What I am trying to say, is that fantasy seriously lacks representation, especially Middle Eastern expression.
Authors such as Hafsah Faisal and S. A. Chakraborty have started to change that. Their stories are set in worlds inspired by Ancient Arabia, something we don’t get to see much because western fantasy has never represented the rich culture and traditions of the Middle East without painting their people as barbarians.
Then comes Squire, a rich, sweeping fantasy adventure graphic novel led by Palestinian-American writer Nadia Shammas and Jordanian-American illustrator Sara Alfageeh, which raises questions about colonialism, prejudice, and identity while setting up an immersive world. The characters are driven and well-written (and beautifully illustrated!). They ask the right questions and go as far as attempting to answer them. It unravels as a battle that sees people fight against an empire that was built on injustice. It’s terrific, really.
Aiza, our 14-year-old protagonist, has always dreamed of being a hero — a knight. The story takes place in the once-great-now-ravaged-by-famine Bayt-Sajji empire, where Aiza was born a member of the subjugated Ornu community. She’s a second-class citizen, dreaming of making a mark in the world. She gets by selling fruits on the street, but Aiza’s ambition knows no bounds.
When a military recruiter comes to her town, she jumps at the chance. Joining the competitive Squire training program could one day grant her full citizenship and a heroic legacy, and the permit to travel across the empire. But more than anything, it may allow Aiza to utilize her full potential. So, she signs up, ultimately finding herself training under the unyielding General Hende. She finds a mentor. She finds friends and rivals alike. She’s also hiding a secret — Aiza straps band-aids to her wrist so she can conceal her Ornu identity, the symbol of her community tattooed to it.
Aiza soon discovers that the “greater good” promised by the military may never include her and that her friends might be in danger of the unknown, oblivious to the reality they’ve signed up for. She realizes she must make a choice — she can either be loyal to her heritage or plead allegiance to the empire.
Squire is a love letter to immigrant kids. It is teeming with social commentary that raises critical questions about cross-cultural friendships, rewriting history, complicity in warfare, legacy and its consequences, and unlearning the injustices of colonialism, knowing fully well that all it has ever done is hurt people. These powerful themes are nicely balanced thanks to Aiza’s humor, her unwavering ideals, and the unlikely companionship she comes to share with an older mentor.
The illustrations are so impressive and representative of Arabic culture — the art features apricots, figs, and olive trees, some characters are pictured wearing cultural Arab clothing. Squire is an effortless read — I started and finished it in a single sitting!
This is a simple story that asks timely questions and wrestles with the lack of morality and ethics in a time of war. I would’ve loved to learn more about what happens after the central conflict is over, but I can confidently say that this is an essential novel many young brown girls will find a glimpse of themselves in.
In today’s day and age, we know how important representation is, and for some people more than others, it’s nearly impossible to see yourself within the pages of an impactful novel let alone seeing someone who looks like you on the silver screen. Squire throws both of those accepted, idealized concepts out of the window. It is a triumph, a story that has a message about the many devastating hardships we see in the real world while being a story about a compelling, ambitious young girl with a dream.
Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas releases March 8, 2022. You can pre-order it via Barnes and Noble here!