Squire by Sara Alfageeh & Nadia Shammas
Publisher: Quill Tree Books (HarperTeen)
Release Date: March 8, 2022
Available through Bookshop
Summary: Aiza has always dreamt of becoming a Knight. It’s the highest military honor in the once-great Bayt-Sajji Empire, and as a member of the subjugated Ornu people, Knighthood is her only path to full citizenship. Ravaged by famine and mounting tensions, Bayt-Sajji finds itself on the brink of war once again, so Aiza can finally enlist in the competitive Squire training program. It’s not how she imagined it, though. Aiza must navigate new friendships, rivalries, and rigorous training under the unyielding General Hende, all while hiding her Ornu background. As the pressure mounts, Aiza realizes that the “greater good” that Bayt-Sajji’s military promises might not include her, and that the recruits might be in greater danger than she ever imagined. Aiza will have to choose, once and for all: loyalty to her heart and heritage, or loyalty to the Empire.
My Rating: ★★★★☆
My Thoughts: Squire is a grand YA fantasy graphic novel that while on the surface, is about a girl’s dream to become a knight, delves into nuanced discussions of imperialism, loyalty to an empire that conquered her people, alongside themes of war and the cycle that maintains it. Through our scrappy, enthusiastic heroine Aiza, the reader gets pulled into the world & cast within Bayt-Sajji, plus the larger themes the story presents. This compelling debut not only contains great artwork, but also tells a story that leaves you wanting to know more!
When Alfageeh’s and Shammas’s graphic novel fell onto my radar, it contained everything I feel like I’d been lacking in my YA Fantasy reading & definitely wanted more of: Knights, grand epic worlds, and even grander themes tackled alongside a fantastical world. In this alternate historical Middle-Eastern inspired world, you begin the story with a clear understanding that Aiza’s Ornu background makes her discriminated against and faring little opportunities, both for her & her family.
Thus, after Aiza learns about the path to knighthood and all its supposed benefits from citizenship among less travel restrictions, etc. naturally she wants to join. Along the way and once reaching the training grounds, she makes new friends (Husni, Sahar & Basem) and undergoes a series of instruction + exams to achieve knight status. While struggling to keep up however, she gets help from groundskeeper Doruk to keep her spot among the knights. However during her improvement, Aiza also finds herself looking deeper into the stories and myths her Empire has told. With an emotionally-fueled narrative, Aiza’s story is not only driven be her determination and ambition, but is illuminated further with the ensemble cast and immersive setting.
The artwork presents such an inviting color palette, ranging from reds to oranges, browns and other earthy colors to present the vibrant architecture, detailed clothing & setting of the Bayt-Sajji Empire, with roots in Turkey and Jordan, as mentioned in an interview between the authors from WNDB. There’s a rich, lived-in atmosphere to the setting that comes to life through the presentation of the art at every page. A small detail that I noticed was how the artwork would transition to darker reds and blues across the novel to highlight night training, characters with ulterior motives, amplifying the intensity of those scenes. The paneling is wonderfully presented to deliver a great pace in telling the story. In presenting dynamic action scenes, richly constructed backgrounds, and attention to detail whether among characters or particular elements in a scene, it highlighted the artwork in ways that got me to appreciate its construction & furthermore, execution in presenting a scene: for example page 90 begins with the recruits writing letters to their families however, the artwork brilliantly allows the training montages to flow in a more creative way with the use of distinct script that is personal to each character offering more insight into the dynamics with their family too. Another personal favorite page of mine was 142 where the architecture / indoor training grounds for Doruk & Aiza became its own panel which stood out to me!
There’s obviously intended and planned out themes that are explored from the subjugation of Ornu peoples, war and anti-imperialism to name a few, they did feel very overt & heavy-handed in their execution especially with the dialogue. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, however, it then read to me that there were no opportunities to explore these various nuanced themes at greater length. In addition, with a great ensemble cast, it seemed like I never knew anything deeper about them. We do get some background to Husni and Basem (with his politically-affiliated parents), General Hende and her past with Doruk, however it felt like there were never any more additional details to develop their backstories even more. While some of my favorites were definitely Aiza, Husni (a friend she meets on her way to training) & Doruk, there’s that familiarity to them yet not enough page-time to engross me in their stories. It ultimately felt like the Empire of Bayt-Sajji had much more left to discover…
Military and training to become a Squire ends up being a large portion of the plot, yet were some of the most fascinating scenes of the story for me! While it so clearly establishes a grander idea about how the Empire utilizes youth & naviete of the recruits to further expand their reach, it still manages to present a close, tight-knit story about the recruits & their experience in training which delivers a light-hearted feel to the story, coupled with Aiza’s charm, the banter and humor woven into the narrative.
Upon reflection, not sure if there is a sequel planned (there’s so much amazing potential there), however I would not mind returning to this world again to see what’s next for the characters and the Empire.
Squire excels at presenting and examining a variety of themes from loyalty, imperialism, and more! The artwork is lively with a vibrant palette of colors, unfolding the story in such a way that elements of mystery and adventure are always present. Alfageeh and Shammas marvelously bring such passion and depth that are clear among the layers of this book! Aiza’s story is not just that of becoming a knight, because what this graphic novel does is offer fantastic explorations into grander ideas about the impacts of war, knighthood and the costs of dreams that don’t want to include her. An immersive, theme-fueled, fantasy story full of nuanced discussion!
Have you read this graphic novel yet? What are some themes that you enjoy reading about or exploring in fantasy? ⚔✨