The first thing that is immediately noticeable about Valor is that it is an absolutely gorgeous book. This review is based on the softcover edition, which I stumbled across while browsing through a Toronto Public Library branch. (And will be looking into acquiring my own copy now that I know it exists.) A lot of love and care went into putting this book together, and it shows.
Valor is a fairy tale anthology, geared primarily for a YA audience, collecting twenty-three pieces from twenty-four creators, mixing both comics storytelling and prose with accompanying art. All of it focused on narratives centring heroines, beautifully normalized queer narratives, foregrounded interracial relationships, and a wealth of fantastic PoC narratives – much of that with PoC protagonists and well-realized, diverse PoC-heavy and PoC-centric worldbuilding.
The anthology is a joy to read. The comics work represents some of the best artists currently working in the field, and the variance of styles is both compelling and wide-ranging enough to keep feeling fresh from tale to tale. And at 312 pages, that’s an impressive feat. Some of the stories are much quieter than others, some almost evanescent in their presentation. Others decidedly impressive and bombastic. Many doing a fair bit of emotional heavy-lifting.
Yes, there are some narrative and subtextual stumbles in some of the stories. Though they are in the minority and don’t detract from the anthology overall, so I’m going to refrain from discussing them.
Instead, I want to focus on what this anthology gets right. Because it gets so much right. There’s so much normalized, understated, omnipresent narration centring girls and young women in a variety of approaches to the understanding of the heroine. So much normalized female friendship above and beyond romantic narratives, both queer and non. So much normalized queer content. So much normalized, comfortable, untokenized PoC-centric content.
In a publishing industry (North American in this context) where the bar for looking good by not fucking up is so ridiculously low, Valor soars. It’s extraordinary in what it manages. And in what it manages to sustain through what, for me, are the most successful tales in the book.
Stories like Emily Hann’s Little Fish, that in its reframing of “The Little Mermaid” manages to normalize and centre Trans* content right up front, utilize sign language as a way of moving away from the idea of disability in the magical deprivation of the young mermaid’s voice, and craft an alternate, queer-positive closure in place of the original fairy tale’s horror.
Stories like Alex Singer and Jayd Ait-Kaci’s The Crane Wife that in its alteration of the standard myth is a meditation on obligation, desire, family, rectitude, and empowered women in various explorations of how that can function, both in positive and negative roles and presentation. By foregrounding women in every role of the story, it rewrites the power dynamics in a culture where they’re traditionally relegated to men. And equally quietly builds a sympathetic, terrifying, and righteous crane woman at the heart of the story. The story’s conclusion as sharp as Ait-Kaci’s gorgeous linework.
Stories like Angelica Maria Lopez’s The Flower in the Gravel. A story that looks at both a trope and trope-breaker depending on context and usage (“the princess is the treasure”) and a trope-breaking element (a modulated variant of “the princess saves herself”) as its foundation, and takes both those basic elements much further, crafting a story about allowing oneself to grieve, finding a path and using that to teach and inspire others, and playing wonderfully with the idea of adventurer, princess, and the roles of captor, liberator, dungeon designer/engineer, and families of choice. All set to a beautifully light, high-contrast art style that pops off the page, and perfectly offsets the emotional depth of the story.
Stories like Justin Lanjil’s evocative Black Bull. A simple story. Beautifully crafted, moving in an older tradition. Its depth subtle and quiet, its art pulling one through several quick arcs. With multiple instances of quietly normalized queer content. The whole of the story working in the fairy tale tradition of cyclical narratives, curse breaking, and journey of discovery (self and otherwise) as core component.
Stories like the back-to-back pairing of Meaghan Carter’s Red Riding Hood and Morgan Beem’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Both almost glancing looks at their subjects. The former a contemplation of the many ways darkness finds us and how we choose to embrace it, in a somewhat literalized interpretation of the dying of the light. The latter one of the most gorgeous visual representations of one of my favourite fairy tales I’ve ever seen. Their indirect contrast is light and dark; earthy and grounded storytelling paired against ethereal, watercolour airiness. They are not quite the centre of the book, though they do feel like its fulcrum.
Stories like Ash Barnes and Elena “Yamino” Barbarich’s Nautilus, with its near-wordless presentation of its story that brings to mind the potency and undertow sweep of Eric Drooker’s equally wordless Blood Song, or his again wordless Flood! A story where as with much of the book female friendship is foregrounded, and the emotional work is done entirely through visual storytelling. It’s also a fascinating look at internal lives, and the presence of our ghosts, in this case literalized. And because the story is so quiet it functions as one of the more powerful tales in a book replete with strong storytelling.
And a story like Katie & Steven Shanahan’s What Fear Said. An equally quiet, internal narrative as Nautilus above. But this a tale of the struggle of standing on the threshold of something, and acknowledging the truth of why one is there, and what lies behind that decision. Being willing to acknowledge one’s fear, and choosing that going forward is, regardless, the only way. Because one is not there simply for oneself, but for others as well. A story of the quiet moments before we throw ourselves into the proverbial lion’s maw.
Even in highlighting these few stories I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the others, because there’s so much to love in this book. So much exquisitely crafted fiction. I could also be talking about what Michelle “Misha” Krivanek’s Bride of the Rose Best, Sara Goetter’s Lady Tilda, and Ran & Cory Brown’s Please, among others, are doing to expand and subvert tropes and normalizing content. And I’m primarily focused here on the graphic fiction rather than the prose fiction mostly just because that’s what had the stronger impact on me while reading the anthology. But taken as a whole, it is a fantastic book, well positioned as a YA text. I would even argue it would work for an audience younger still. Especially given its positive slant and its focus on women as heroines, the central function of female friendship that underwrites many of these tales, and the beautifully normalized representation of queer and PoC storytelling.
It deserves to be on shelves alongside texts like the traditionally ubiquitous Jack Zipes translation of the Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. (A copy of which adorns my own shelf and is many times read.) Or Charles Perrault’s interpretations of the Grimm tales. Both of which cover tales looked at in Valor, but which teach (especially by virtue of adulterating older women-driven and women-centric antecedents of the stories within their purview) that fear and loss are primary motivators, and that sacrifice and murder and mutilation, of body and soul and independence, are necessary in order to find one’s life and destiny. And that that destiny is prescribed primarily by being white, subservient, and straight — unless you’re male, in which case being white and straight is often enough.
The lessons presented in Valor are no less succinct, but they are positive and not fear-mongering. They are inclusive and accepting. They are not destructive lessons. They open wider paths instead of restricting them. It is an anthology so rich and full of life and colour and beauty, so focused on women. It is in many ways a better text for introducing children and teenagers to some of the classic fairy tales, and absolutely worth introducing them to the ones original to the anthology.
The anthology also, I think, makes an excellent and much more natural springboard to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales than either Zipes or Perrault. Which is probably the highest praise I can bestow on a book centring on fairy tales of any variety.