I have waxed long about my pure and ardent love of graphic novels, about the interplay between picture and words creates a new depth to storytelling and how seeing multiple interpretations of the narrative on the page prompts me to be more engaged in my own reading of it. I make no apologies for such long-waxed love, which is good because I’m about to do it again.
The Golden Age, part one of a duology, tells the story of Tilda, the heir to her late father’s throne usurped by her kid brother (backed, as might be expected, by a band of power-hungry nobles looking to cash in on the temporary power vacuum). She flees exile with the last loyal subjects in the palace: Tankred, an aging but wise noble who has himself been exiled before, and Bertil, who idolizes Tankred and seeks to further his ideals about noble-commoner hierarchy. But their escape from the traitors isn’t as clean as they would have hoped, and Tilda is badly wounded and separated from the others. Just before she collapses, she sees a vision of war and death at her hands.
She is revived by a secret order of women hidden deep in the woods, who work cooperatively in their commune with no respect for whatever social hierarchy they had before entering its walls. This delicate asylum is upset when Tankred and Bertil track Tilda to its gates—and overturned completely when Tilda, in the throes of another vision, kills a man who had snuck in to deliver a message to one of the women. When Tilda recovers enough to leave, she and her retinue of two seek sanctuary with Lord Albaret, a noble living on the somewhat-distant Peninsula who sent Tilda a letter pledging his loyalty shortly before she was overthrown. But relations between nobles and peasants have been growing increasingly fraught, as we’ve learned throughout the book to this point, and they are worst on the Peninsula. Lord Albaret gives Tilda a map to a mysterious treasure her father found ages ago, and then forbade anyone else from seeking or telling the location of. He can’t give her much more information than that before the peasants come for his house, and Tilda and friends are once more on the run. But as they seek the treasure and Tilda’s visions grow worse, she begins to fray, threatening their little band. And the motivation behind her usurping is both closer and more complicated than she would have ever guessed.
The story by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, translated for US publication from the original French, has so many of the classic elements of European-based fantasy — visions, traitors, loyalty, hidden treasure, the heir to the throne discovering they must do something far more heroic than expected in order to save the land. Pedrosa’s dreamy artwork reinforces that tradition.
But it isn’t enamored with the glitz of the royalty—or the quiet obedience of the commoners—as so many fairy tales are. Tilda is concerned for the welfare of all of her people regardless of class, but it’s pretty clear that to her—and those with her—that welfare must come through the perfecting of the existing hierarchy. “You can’t change the natural order of the world,” Bertile says when his suggestion of reforms to the system is questioned by another. Meanwhile, a recurring trio of starving peasants shed light on how poorly things are really going for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, making nice dissonance between the actions and thoughts of our heroes and the way the world is working without their notice. And although the laws of The Golden Age are not so patriarchal as to bar Tilda from inheriting the throne, gender dynamics, and the power differential woven throughout them, still play a significant role in this medieval world.
One of the things I love most about reading history is the all-too-frequent resonance with current issues. There are cycles of wealth and poverty, of feast and famine; there will always be those who elevate themselves over the rest, only for them—or their spiritual or literal successors—to be brought back to the dirt when the people they’ve stepped on get fed up. There is love and hate, and loyalty and betrayal, because in the end, people are just people no matter how many tchotchkes they have. The Golden Age is, obviously, not a work of history, but it nails that feeling of encountering the familiar in what was supposed to be foreign. In its indistinct historical era, it imagines one of the aggregate uprisings and what those in the existing infrastructure might have been thinking about instead of their own impending demise.
The Golden Age is a great graphic novel in which the art and words tell a story greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a great fairy tale—it’s just a great story. I intend to read this again—but slower this time, now that I know what to watch for, and really taking in that artwork—and I cannot wait for October so I can get my hands on Book 2.