The enticing premise of a contemporary fantasy novel is that the everyday is, in fact, full of magic.
Arab-American writer George Jreije tackles this idea with several layers in his middle-grade contemporary fantasy debut, Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria.
As he grapples with the familiar tropes of the genre, Jreije also presents a new type of protagonist who can wield a unique brand of magic.
He's a first-generation Arab immigrant who has a love for Middle Eastern desserts and discovers he’s an alchemist — it's a new territory in the contemporary fantasy landscape.
“The inspiration for the idea of a 12-year-old boy who discovers he's an alchemist came from wanting to write something that was boldly unique and original,” Jreije tells The National.
“I wanted to write something that was part of my lived experience. Not just being an Arab, but being an Arab-American and being someone who loves Arab food.”
Jreije’s novel follows Shad Hadid, a Lebanese boy who lives with his grandmother, Teta, in Portland, Oregon. Shad doesn’t fit in at school and dreams of one day opening a Middle Eastern bakery selling desserts.
One of the core strengths of the novel is Shad himself. Clever, sarcastic, brave, curious and fiercely protective over his family and friends, readers will find themselves rooting for him despite the obstacles he finds himself up against, and they'll no doubt find his streak for troublemaking rather charming.
“Shad himself is very much a window into the boy that I was when I was 12,” Jreije says with a laugh. “I think his biggest personality trait is that he likes causing some sort of trouble or does so unintentionally. And I was a troublemaker, but I always had good intentions.”
While very confident, Shad is also rather lonely and has the overwhelming responsibility of caring for his sick grandmother, something which allows him to use his talents as an exceptional cook and baker.
Then, one day, while trying to outsmart bullies, take care of his grandmother and stay on top of his school work, several extraordinary things happen. Shad is attacked by a menacing shadow in front of his favourite bakery, discovers that he comes from a long line of alchemists and receives an invitation to Alexandria Academy, a school of magic.
Any reader of the Harry Potter series may find the premise familiar — orphaned child discovers they possess some form of magic and is whisked away to a school where they learn about themselves while also fighting the forces of evil.
But Jreije's story is very different. Not only is Shad a Lebanese immigrant to America, who uses Arabic words and phrases, and not only is alchemy’s Islamic roots explored in the story, but, most interestingly, the magical school where Shad hopes to learn more about the ancient science, has never even heard of alchemy.
“I wanted to flip this trope on its head,” Jreije says.
“Shad goes to this school and yet the alchemy is not there. There is no sign of it. It's not him going to this wondrous school and learning all these secrets and he's being taught this ancient art from all of these individuals. He goes there and there's no alchemy.”
Claiming to be a school for technology, deans and students are more interested in progress for progress's sake. This forces Shad to look beyond the facade of the school to discover a plot by the necromancers, a dark, sinister subgroup of alchemists and their plans to create an elixir for eternal life and something much more dangerous.
“I wanted to push readers off a cliff and say, you're not in your typical story any more,” Jreije says. “Now you're in my story, and you're in for a ride, so buckle up.”
Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria is definitely a fast-paced story for middle-grade readers, full of adventure, action, themes of good and evil, friendship, culture, character transformations and diversity.
The debut work will keep young readers entertained, from the easy-to-follow plot to the unique world Jreije has conjured up. It will also keep them hungry through the descriptions of delicious food and desserts woven into the story.
“In America, there's a very strong pull to assimilation, it's almost undeniable,” Jreije says.
“Food was my strongest cultural tie growing up in America. Whenever I think of my culture, I think of the food and it fills me with calm and reassurance that I at least can, no matter what happens, appreciate this part of my culture.”
Jreije also depicts nuanced characters from different backgrounds in a contemporary setting steeped in culture and touches of alchemist history.
“I hope that young readers see a little bit of themselves and their lives — young Arab readers in particular — represented here,” Jreije says.
“I also hope that my young readers who are not Arab get a window into our wonderful and wondrous culture that in and of itself is magical even without the alchemy.”