Spera, Vol. 1
Created by: Josh Tierney, Kyla Vanderklugt, Emily Carroll
Published by: Archaia
ISBN: 1936393301 (Amazon)
I have a daughter. An awesome daughter. She’s little. She walks and talks and adventures around, but she doesn’t yet read. She knows the sounds most letters make, but she’s not yet stringing them together. She’ll probably start reading in earnest in the next year or so. I’ve got big plans for her, all the books and games and things that I love that I hope to share with her.
Plan is loosely and perhaps injudiciously used here.
Less than any well-thought-out schematic for her education in the pop-cultural ephemera that I enjoy along with a splinter of the real world’s populace, I have a rough idea: throw awesome stuff at her in hopes that she’ll find something she herself will enjoy. Something that fits the nook of her own individual tastes and circumstances. I can’t pretend to know what that will be, but more than anything I want her to be able to experience all the wonderful things out there in an environment of safety and comfort—for as long as I’m able to provide that for her.
I’m not opposed to her encountering mature, complex works such as Habibi or Sailor Twain, but I think it would be reasonable to ramp her up to such literature by first introducing her to less-confusing visions of the female person. With that in mind, over the next few months and years, I’ll be looking for books that don’t portray femaleness as an indictment, a weakness, or a reason to be victimized.11It breaks my heart that there will one day be a very good reason for her to encounter these things in her fiction—that she might be better made capable to encounter them in the non-fiction that makes up her actual life. And honestly, apart from a handful of books, I can’t immediately think of much that fits the bill. Leave It to Chance, even though Chance’s father is clearly sexist (it’s a plot point)? Jeff Smith’s Bone? Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk? The works of Raina Telgameier? What else? I’m sure there’s more. Nausicaä could work (especially as she already adores Howl’s Moving Castle), but it might be a little harrowing for her in the next couple years.
At any rate I’m thankful, then, that Josh Tierney and his astonishing cadre of collaborators is putting forward Spera, the story of two very different princesses and the terrible, wonderful world they adventure in. It’s not so far or properly speaking either a kid’s book or even one of particular interest to females—save perhaps for the bald fact that it exists and may be friendly to both demographics.
Spera takes a note from some of the best adventure stories and seems to gleefully embrace a world with dark corners and dangerous tidings. For all its beauty, lives are at stake and not everybody gets to live happily ever after. It’s the kind of story a kid could get behind—one that doesn’t feel patronizing or pandering. It’s a story that, ironically, takes off the kid gloves.22Kids, generally speaking, loathe kid gloves. The fastest way to prove you have no respect for a child is to shield them from all darkness. They might not realize right away that you’re doing this, but sooner than later they’ll catch on. And then they’ll know what you think of them. And in that moment, they’ll lose the tiniest amount of respect for you as well. Pira is a princess fleeing her own realm, abandoning a queen who is conquering and terrifying and merciless. She and her friend (?) Yonder, a fire-spirit most often taking the form of a great flaming dog, stop along their way to pick up a companion in the form of another princess. Lono’s father, the king of her realm, has just been murdered by Pira’s mother and their kingdom is fated to be put to the sword, so Pira’s arrival and invitation to flee come with fortuitous timing. The three journey through mysterious lands to find a fabled land of peace and plenty, Spera.
One of Spera's successes (in my eyes at least) is that it doesn’t posit a single type of female character as being valuable. Too often, I think, authors tired of the cliches that for too long riddled the expression of female character in adventure fiction embrace a second (though reactive) cliche. As exhausted as the shrinking violet/distressed damsel has been for ages now, coming in close on its heels is the rough-and-tumble, hyper-capable, rash-decision-making girl-power girl. I’m sure that at one point, the character was somewhere in the neighbourhood of fresh, but that hasn’t been the case for decades at the least.
So when Spera posits Pira and Lono as dual protagonists, I hold out hope for the story. True, Lono does seem at times to be something near the hesitant, dainty princess, and Pira cuts a quick figure for the badass tough girl; but as the story goes, it seems that they will be less of these things and more simply just capable foils for each other as they grow during the story’s unfolding. At least, this is my hope.
Spera is truly an all-ages book in that—though pretty simple so far—it can appeal to kiddies and grown ups too-oo-oo.33Allusion here from Kipling’s poem about the Cameelious hump, the hump that is black and blue—from Just So Stories, which I’ve been reading to my daughter before bed. And though this is the case, I’m mostly interested to see how my daughter takes to it. It’s built around the ideas of adventure and loyalty—and maybe around the idea that loyalty is an adventure. There’re swords and monsters and spirits and dark woods and hidden caves. No princes so far. Both princesses show themselves well and truly capable, albeit in entirely different ways. And even Lono, who is not naturally brave, shows herself to have a courage that rivals Pira’s (after all, the naturally frightened must exercise far more bravery to do the things that come easy to the naturally courageous). It’s only the first volume and hard to tell where Tierney is going to take his story, but so far, everything seems relatively light (as light as a story about fleeing a murderous queen could be).
One of the coolest features of Spera also turns out to be one of its biggest negatives. (Though for all that, not so big a negative.) Tierney, in order to convey his story, enlists an entire armory’s worth of artists, each one taking on a chapter. Flipping through before sitting down to read, I immediately recognized Luke Pearson (of Hildafolk) and Emily Carroll (of His Face All Red), but for the most part, Spera was my introduction to a number of talented artists. The problem, beyond the discrepancy in narrative tone that a rotation of artists necessarily causes, is that some of the creators employed were better illustrators than they were visual storytellers. Each contributor had interesting takes on the characters, but some had trouble conveying through their drawings what exactly was occurring on the page. It’s a common kind of problem with young illustrators, but while understandable and I can empathize, it does occasionally diminish the work.
Still, these kinds of hiccoughs do not, in the end, supersede the value of Tierney’s production and I’m excited to see where he’ll take things in future volumes.
The organization of the book was a bit of a puzzle to me. The first four chapters are presented as The Story. These are followed by a section of short pieces that look like they are to be read simply as vignettes unrelated to the narrative flow. But (!) these stories really do end up carrying on the story and are sequential parts of the grander narrative strain and build off each other. That they should be presented as something separate was confusing to me as there doesn’t appear any real reason for this. Maybe there is and I wasn’t careful enough in my reading to catch it. A puzzlement.
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