Book Review: Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas – A Brilliant Interrogation of Heroism, Imperialism and Power, Set in an Alternate History Middle-East

Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas.

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. 

I received a digital advanced readers copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I read Squire thinking it would be a story about knighthood and heroism. In a way, Squire is about those two things, but it was also, unexpectedly yet to my delight, so much more. Set in alternate history Middle East, Squire follows Aiza, a young girl of the fictional Ornu people who dreams of becoming a Knight for the Bayt-Sajji Empire – not only for the glory of it, but also because it will offer a path to full citizenship. Hiding her Ornu background, Aiza enlists to become a Squire, but discovers that the ‘greater good’ promised by military is not at all what she initially believed.

Squire examines why, a young girl of a subjugated people who are denied rights, resources, and respect would choose to become a soldier to serve those who subjugate her. When an opulently clad herald, a stark contrast to the poverty that Aiza has always known, promises full citizenship, rights to own property, and opportunities for travel – all of which have been denied to Aiza – to those who enlist and excel, it is no small wonder that Aiza sees this as a rare opportunity to rise above her circumstances. Aiza’s story and personal and emotional motivations are immediately engaging, a fascinating depiction of how she straddles two conflicting ideas of herself and who she can be. Though her decisions and aspirations may be in part naiveté, it also depicts how personal circumstances can have complicated intersections with oppression, power, and exploitation and why those most oppressed not just choose to enlist, but are often led to.

When Aiza joins the military and comes under the tutelage of the groundskeeper whose past becomes intertwined with Aiza’s future, Squire then explores the cruel realities of war and who gets to write history. Aiza’s journey is a deeply emotional one, fuelled by ambition and vulnerability. The unexpected companions that she makes along the way are excellently developed with their own reasons for enlisting in the army and, story-wise, also offer a nuanced perspective that challenge and conflict with Aiza’s own ideals and righteousness.

Underscoring the story of Squire is a firmly anti-imperialist and anti-war narrative that challenges the typical ‘hero story’, one that examines who gets to be a hero, and what it means to be a hero and to do what is right, even if that conflicts with the hegemonic symbol of heroism. The most compelling point of Squire is how Aiza is forced to confront how her dreams of heroism and glory are built on violence and subjugation of not just real people but her own people. What is heroism, if not a symbol? And what does that symbol stand for, and who gets to write that hero story? And what is that hero story used for?

Suffice it to say, the art of Squire is a marvel, a great deal of love, thought, and personal care gone into the art and storytelling. Readers who love ‘behind the scenes’ and process snippets will enjoy the last few pages of the book. compelling story from start to finish, Squire is a fantastic graphic novel which offers a fantastic interrogation of imperialism and war and how that intertwines with nuanced explorations of what it means to be a hero.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A young girl enlists in the military in the hopes of becoming a Squire and becomes intertwined with a power struggle greater than she is.

Perfect for: Readers who love stories about knights; readers wanting to read something that subverts a typical narrative; readers looking for an anti-war and anti-imperialist story; readers who enjoy graphic novels.

Think twice if: Readers who may struggle to grapple with its subversive anti-war and anti-imperialist narrative.

Genre: young adult graphic novel, alternate history

Trigger/content warning: discrimination, physical violence, war themes

Find this book on:
Goodreads | Bookshop | Indiebound | Amazon

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