Dreams of the Golden Age is the follow up to Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age, to which I gave only a middling review thanks to issues of plotting and characterization. While the sequel suffers from some of the same problems, they crop up less frequently and are less problematic. The main character, meanwhile, is a more active and engaging voice and so I found Dreams of the Golden Age to be more successful and thus far more enjoyable.
The sequel picks up a good number of years after its predecessor. At the end of After the Golden Age, Celia had married Dr. Mentis and taken over as head of West Corps. She is now the mother of two teen daughters, one of whom — Anna — will split POVs with Celia for the novel. Unlike her mother, Anna has inherited the family superpower genes, but much to her dismay she has what she considers a near-useless ability — she can locate anyone she concentrates on. Meanwhile, several of her friends (thanks to Celia’s behind-the-scenes manipulation, those likely to have inherited a superpower are clustered together in an elite private school) have come into their own powers and the teens have decided to follow in the footsteps of the now retired Olympiad team of crime-fighting superheroes.
The premise is a wholly engaging one as, rather than focusing on heroes already in their crime-fighting prime, we see the fits and starts of the beginning of the process as these kids try to figure out the best ways to use their powers, both individually and as a team. And being teenagers, there is a lot of jealousy, sniping, one-upmanship, hurt feelings, etc. Anna, for instance, feels next to useless compared to her friends who can shoot laser bolts or control frost a la the X-Men’s Iceman. All of this superhero plot is set alongside the usual teen angst issues — Anna tries to keep all this secret from her parents (more difficult when one’s father is Dr. Mentis — a telepath), fights with both her mother and younger sister, has self-esteem issues, and is working her way through her thoughts on boys (thankfully, this is a very small aspect of the plot). Though Anna splits the POV time with her mother, the novel really reads as much more her story than Celia’s (this is also why Dreams of the Golden Age is more a crossover adult/YA while After the Golden Age is more firmly adult).
Celia of course has her own issues — personal, political, and superhero-related; a new supervillain (“The Executive”) is potentially rearing his/her head in Commerce City; and new superheroes are popping up even though Celia thought she had figured out at the end of After the Golden Age the origin of superpowers and thus could tell who might have such power. To be honest, I felt when we switched POVs back to Celia the novel lost a bit of its thrust, and I could have done with an even more full focus on Anna.
Pacing, as with the first book, is strong — the read is quick and fluid and only lags at the very end. Plotting still suffers from being a bit overly predictable: bad guys are pretty clearly forecast, mysterious strangers aren’t really all that mysterious, and at times, though less frequently than in its predecessor, Dreams of the Golden Age can feel a bit contrived. This is especially true at the end, which is unfortunately the weakest part of the book for all sorts of reasons — predictability, implausibility, pacing, and contrived plot twists.
Characterization, thanks to the presence of Anna and a more rich presence of Celia’s husband (Dr. Mentis) and her mother (Suzanne/Scorch), is stronger than in After the Golden Age. The other teen characters and the villain, however, are much more shallowly drawn.
The collision of the mundane and fantastic is still captivating, as when the superfast “Bullet” is reduced to a cane thanks to arthritis (he has actually had a hip replacement) or when Suzanne, forced once more into action, manages one bit of derring do then has to be carted off in an ambulance thanks to a nasty fall. As with the first book, I found myself wishing for many more of these types of scenes as Vaughn does them so well.
There is still a sense of unmet potential in Dreams of the Golden Age, but the book succeeds more than it disappoints and, thanks to its focus on the younger Anna, is more compelling than its predecessor even as Vaughn has cleared up (if not fully) some of the writerly problems the first book had. Recommended.
May contain spoilers for the previous book, After the Golden Age.
The stakes are a little lower in Carrie Vaughn’s Dreams of the Golden Age, the sequel toAfter the Golden Age, but they’re still interesting. Anna and her teenage friends have superpowers — some defensively-oriented, some offensively-based — in addition to high school exams, watchful parents, and curfews. The kids are desperately trying to keep their abilities secret while determining how best to help the city they love. On the other side of the coin, Celia is investigating shady business practices while dealing with a rather complicated personal life. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will say nothing more than this: There are some lingering effects from the finale of After the Golden Age.) And, worst of all, the shadowy Executive has infiltrated Commerce City, with motives and aspirations that threaten them all.
The perspective in Dreams of the Golden Age is (more or less) split evenly between Celia West and her daughter, Anna West-Mentis. What makes this work, rather than derailing the plot, is that the story builds in such a way that each chapter relies upon the next, creating an interlocking narrative. It’s like watching two mice work through different sides of one maze with the same center goal, as opposed to one mouse in a maze and one scurrying down a street thirty miles away.
Some characters transitioned over from the After the Golden Age: Celia is still headstrong and loyal to Commerce City, Arthur still quietly observes the world while actions unfold around him, Suzanne still cooks stir-fry by heating the bottom of a wok with her bare hand. The normal concerns Celia and Arthur share about their two teenage daughters — are Anna and Bethy doing well in school, how to be a caring parent without becoming either overbearing or distant — are compounded by concerns about their daughters’ potential superpowers and the legacy left by the now-defunct Olympiad. Vaughn balances these issues well, creating a completely believable (albeit extraordinary) family. The adults’ actions and dialogue makes sense, as much so as the teenagers’; conversations between Anna and her friends feel natural and fresh without clunky pseudo-slang. The superhero monikers of each teenager are an especially nice touch: Compass Rose, Ghost, Lady Snow, Blaster, Stormbringer. They feel like the kinds of names people might choose if they were trying to live up to the legacy of super-people like Captain Olympus, Spark, Breezeway, and Typhoon.
The new characters, particularly Anna, leap off the page. Anna’s power is completely within her mind: She can find people she knows, visualizing their location on an internal map of Commerce City. Since this is far less flashy than freezing water into ice or firing laser beams from her fingertips, Anna struggles with maintaining the self-confidence required of a city savior. What use is she, Anna wonders, as a crime fighter if she’s essentially a glorified police scanner? I felt that this was a great choice on Vaughn’s part, because it creates a more complicated set of challenges for Anna than if her power were, say, expelling spikes of bone from her skin. Anna must find a way to make her power useful, and I am more than satisfied with the end result.
Exposition is also very well handled. Rather than hijacking the plot with info-dumps, relevant details are inserted as needed via reminiscences or conversations. If you didn’t read After the Golden Age, I imagine that you won’t be too confused, but I still don’t recommend approaching these books out-of-sequence.
The big reveal of the villain is the most disappointing part. Throughout Dreams of the Golden Age, he only appears on a handful of occasions, and I don’t understand his actions or motivations despite Celia goading him into monologuing during the action-packed climax. Adding to my disappointment is that at no point throughout the entire book did I feel that any one of the protagonists was truly in danger. I don’t think that a major (or minor) character needs to die in every book I read, but I want to feel like there’s a chance that not everyone will make it safely to the last page.
I hope Vaughn explores Delta City in further books, because right now it’s just a cypher with some potentially interesting citizens. We do get to see more of Commerce City — different kinds of neighborhoods, the private school, the local university — as Anna and her friends explore the idea of forming their own vigilante group, but I wanted more than I was given. Some interesting questions are asked near the end of the book which lead me to believe that there will be more installments for this universe, and I sincerely hope that I’m correct in that assumption.
Those complaints aside, this was an extremely enjoyable read. Dreams of the Golden Age would be a great book for fans of superheroes, metahumans, and anyone who can sympathize with a teenager’s struggles to make a name for herself while living up to a truly remarkable legacy.
The Golden Age — (2011-2014) Publisher: Can an accountant defeat a supervillain? Celia West, only daughter of the heroic leaders of the superpowered Olympiad, has spent the past few years estranged from her parents and their high-powered lifestyle. She’s had enough of masks and heroics, and wants only to live her own quiet life out from under the shadow of West Plaza and her rich and famous parents. Then she is called into her boss’ office and told that as the city’s top forensic accountant, Celia is the best chance the prosecution has to catch notorious supervillain the Destructor for tax fraud. In the course of the trial, Celia’s troubled past comes to light and family secrets are revealed as the rift between Celia and her parents grows deeper. Cut off from friends and family, Celia must come to terms with the fact that she might just be Commerce City’s only hope. This all-new and moving story of love, family, and sacrifice is an homage to Golden Age comics that no fan will want to miss.