Endings are harder than beginnings: any story-teller will tell you that. So if I quibble that The Golden Age doesn’t end as well as it begins, I’m largely saying that it’s a story, and that’s what stories do.
Reading the second half, though – the graphic novel or bande dessinee The Golden Age, Book 2 , written by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, and drawn by Pedrosa with some coloring support from others – there were several times my editor’s pen itched to make notes. I don’t know if these would have made the story better, but if I were involved in the creation, these are the things I would have asked.
First, Book One follows Tilda, the older child of the now-dead king of Antrevers. The beginning of Book Two looks like it might follow her younger brother, who finally gets a name (Edwald) for what I think was the first time at the very end of this book. Edwald does not become our viewpoint at any time here; this is still Tilda’s story. And maybe it had to be. But for a story about political factions and civil war, about opinions on how the world is supposed to be, about noblesse oblige and the democratic impulse, about the battle for the soul of a kingdom, something wider than just Tilda and a handful of advisors as viewpoints would have been useful. As it is, Edwald’s side is basically an evil caricature, with nothing good or positive about them, not even stability or continuity, and that feels like a lack.
Second, both books begin with the same group of peasants, standing in for the whole population of Antrevers, the ones who will be affected by all of these battles and decisions by nobles and kings. It looks like those people may be important to the action of the story, as thematically they are important: The Golden Age is the story of a transition from autocracy to something like democracy, in a very simplified sense. But they really aren’t. The masses are there to fight against each other, while the Important People stand in the center of panels to declaim and fight each other, to do the Important Things. The Golden Age says that it’s about them, but like so many supposedly-democratic works of the fantastic, the strong single person is more interesting, easier to work with narratively, than a mass of “just ordinary people.”
I like parallels; I like books to set things up and then knock them down; I like guns on mantlepieces to be taken down at just the right moment and fired. Golden Age does not quite do those things; it instead is caught up in a vague supernatural element that seems to inherently corrupt all of the autocratic rulers of Antrevers and a possibly prophetic old book of political philosophy (or is it mean to be religion? It’s presented in the manner of a religious text, but its matter is political). Golden Age seems to want to say this mystical book is the Law of the Universe, but the actual operation of the magical things here is deeply obscure: are they set up by a god or gods? were they the embodied power of the ancient kings who stole power from the masses? were they self-generated somehow? are they actually operating against each other, as they seem to be, or is there some deeper balance underneath them?
So, anyway, there’s a magical box and a magical book. The book is supposed to be in the box, but the box seems to be the source of all the bad stuff and the book the source of all the good stuff, so thematically, locking the good stuff inside the bad is a weird metaphor.
I should be clear, after going so deeply into the weeds: this is the subtext, and only occasionally reaches the level of text. The story here is that Tilda’s tired, mostly unpaid, deeply fragile army is besieging Edwald’s castle, and not doing well. Tilda has had a vision of victory, and is utterly uncompromising in that vision, but does not seem to notice ways that the actual world does not line up with her visions. Meanwhile, another army loyal to Edwald is on its way: Tilda’s forces need to win quickly, or will lose forever. And she’s already shattered most of their strength in repeated pointless assaults on a portion of the curtain wall she is sure her forces can break.
So the story is about the siege, and the fight, and who lives and who dies, and how they kill each other. The big ending includes the book and the box, and whatever magics they have. And, as I said, it works pretty well but feels not quite as crisp as it should be to me.
Pedrosa, though, gives us another set of absolutely gorgeous pages, striking in their vibrant colors and stunning in their energy. That makes up for any gaps in the themes: the book powers over any possible quibbles through pure visual power, culminating in a stunning phantasmagorical conclusion.