Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: Dreams of the Golden Age

Dreams of the Golden Age
Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the idea of superhero fiction, but all too often the execution isn't to my taste. Most superhero fiction tends to the dark and gritty and tragic, and I'm not into that. This is the other kind. The book neatly describes itself in the last chapter: "It was family drama, not superhero mythology". And yet it's more than that sentence implies, as well.

It's a while since I read the first in the series, [b:After the Golden Age|8665134|After the Golden Age (Golden Age, #1)|Carrie Vaughn||13536680]. In part, that was because I was waiting for the price to drop (I read more than 100 books a year, so $9.99 for an ebook isn't going to happen, however confident I am that the book will be good). I remember, though, that the first book focussed a lot more on relationships than on superheroics, on the consequences for the family members of the supers, particularly Celia, the non-powered daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark. She kept getting taken hostage, even though that never turned out well for the villains, and as an act of teenage rebellion once became a supervillain's minion.

Here, Celia is a middle-aged mother, bringing up teenage daughters and worrying she's doing it badly (she isn't, in the scheme of things) and that they will develop powers and put themselves in danger (one of them does), and at the same time hoping that her daughter and her daughter's friends will become the next generation of superpowered protectors of the city she loves. Because even if she hasn't inherited the powers, Celia has inherited the obsession with the city that both the heroes and villains born there seem to share.

Though Celia is a main viewpoint character, the other main viewpoint is her daughter Anna, AKA Compass Rose, who can locate anyone she knows well enough. Besides the usual mother-daughter stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual friend stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual teenage crush stuff complicated by superpowers, there's also a lot of reflection (mostly taking place in and around action) on what supers can do about crime that isn't street crime, and how they interface with the police and the media.

This is a realistic world, above all; a realistic world in which teenagers can shoot lasers from their hands and leap tall buildings, but in all other respects realistic. I've recently had two people ask me about my taste for superhero fiction. A friend on Google+ asked why I enjoyed superhero prose; he's an artist, and to him the visual aspect of comics is important. I replied, more or less, that prose gives an opportunity to go further into the characters' interior world and their relationships, rather than just being about the fights and the destruction, and this is very much what this book is like. There's a superhero fight, but it's a desperate, frightening thing filled with significance because of all the work that the author has put in beforehand building up the relationships and the inner lives of the characters.

The other person who asked me about my enjoyment of superhero fiction was my wife, who wanted to know why I like the TV show The Flash but don't like Scorpion because it's too over-the-top and hokey. My answer was that Scorpion is a technothriller; it tries to be set in the real world, but fails, because the technology that it tries to take completely seriously makes no sense whatsoever (and it's cheesier than the exports of Wisconsin). The Flash, on the other hand, is about relationships and conflicts in a world of what-if, where the what-if is superpowers. I accept the superpowers as part of the furniture of the world, without worrying about how physics doesn't work that way, because the show knows that physics doesn't work that way but is asking me to suspend my disbelief about it and enjoy the story.

That's also what this book is like. I quickly came to care about the characters, who are vulnerable and troubled without being whiny, brave and idealistic without being headstrong idiots, and whose conflicts are driven by their own flaws but ultimately resolved by their own virtues. It's good writing, good fiction.

So, it's a good book that just happens to have supers in it? No. The fact that these people are supers and the relatives of supers is fundamental to their situation and their identities. You couldn't remove that aspect and have a remotely similar book. The author has perfectly fused the "supers" part and the "people" part together and produced a whole greater than the sum of those parts.

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