Because its military ranks have been decimated by a devastating famine, the Bayt-Sajji empire has expanded its squire training program to enlist young people from conquered territories. Aiza is a member of the Ornu people, who are treated like second-class citizens. She is deeply familiar with the oppression and discrimination that plague the empire but still dreams of becoming a knight.
Once Aiza joins up, her visions of grandeur and heroism are quickly replaced by the harsh reality of grueling training, complicated new relationships and pressure to keep her Ornu identity a secret. As Aiza learns more about the empire, she realizes that its knights may not be as noble as she once thought. Eventually, she is forced to decide where her loyalties truly lie.
Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas’ Squire takes readers on a heart-pounding adventure set in a fantasy world inspired by the history and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. Aiza is charming and spunky, and although she can seem naive as she chases her lofty dreams, she also admirably clings to her desire to do good.
As Aiza makes her way through training, she meets a diverse and appealing cast of characters. Her fellow trainees include serious but encouraging Sahar, who comes from poverty and wants to support her family; Husni, a lighthearted jokester who longs to prove himself to his father; and Basem, the son of a senator, who is determined to beat his father’s record and become a squire faster than anyone ever has.
Squire explores complex, ambitious questions as Aiza is confronted by the lengths the empire is willing to go to achieve the greater good: What do we do when our dreams don’t turn out to be like we imagined? Who has the ability to create history, and whose stories are left out or lost? What should we do when we are ordered to compromise what we believe is right?
Alfageeh’s illustrations brim with lush backgrounds and charming details. She excels at drawing expressive characters and conveying a range of emotion and movement, from silly banter between friends to fast-paced battle scenes bright with action and feeling. This is a graphic novel with detailed, poignant illustrations worth lingering over.
Shammas and Alfageeh have created a story that successfully balances both exciting fantasy and resonant realism. Squire demonstrates how anyone, from earnest heroes to sneaky villains, can become tangled up in webs of social and political systems bigger and more powerful than a single person. But it also shows how, sometimes, it just takes one person to make a meaningful difference in the world.