After the Golden Age: The perils of being human

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAfter the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn After the Golden AgeAfter the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn, is a likable enough novel that takes the world of comic book superheroes and filters it through a more realistic prism, focusing more on a family and character, with the usual superhero action scenes playing more in the background. Unfortunately, what could have been a truly fun read is marred by issues of weak plotting and characterization, making After the Golden Age a somewhat pallid and on balance a slightly disappointing novel. One’s disappointment, however, can be tempered a bit by the knowledge that her follow-up, Dreams of the Golden Age, is more successful even if it suffers (less frequently and less intensely) from a few of the same issues.

Celia West would seem to have won the life lottery, having been born into the richest and most powerful family in Commerce City. Even better, her parents, Warren and Suzanne West, are also the beloved superheroes Captain Olympus and Scorch, leaders of a superhero team known as The Olympiad. Unfortunately, being the non-powered daughter of the city’s most famous couple (their secret identities were revealed several years earlier) turns out to be less than idyllic. Combine that with her father’s temper and the typical teenage angst, and Celia’s early life was a bit of a nightmare as far as she was concerned. Like most teens she rebelled. Unlike most teens, her method of rebellion involved joining up with a super-villain. Her flirtation (literally) with evil was short-lived, though, and after The Olympiad took down The Destructor and prevented him from destroying the city, Celia got her life mostly together. She went away to college, graduated, and now works as a forensic accountant, eschewing her parents’ wealth and fame, living quietly by herself in a non-descript apartment working a non-descript job, and dealing with the more-than-occasional kidnapping (she’s lost count) as criminals try to get at her parents through her.

All of this changes when The Destructor, a la Al Capone is put on trial not for his outlandish plots but for tax evasion, and Celia becomes part of the prosecuting team. Meanwhile, Commerce City is facing a new wave of crime, Commerce City’s mayor begins to wonder if the superheroes are more bane than boon, and Celia’s investigations begin to reveal surprising questions about just where Commerce City’s superheroes came from.

After the Golden Age’s best moments occur when the comic book world overlaps with the domestic world, as when Celia’s mother, whose superpower is generating heat, cooks her sauce by holding the pot because she has more control that way rather than by using the stove’s burners. Or when, thanks to an emergency, her parents have to suddenly abandon Celia mid-dinner in their huge penthouse/command center atop the West Corps building (think the Baxter Building in The Fantastic Four):  “The penthouse trembled for a moment as the jumpjet launched from its rooftop hangar . . . The Tupperware was still in the cupboard next to dishwasher. Celia packaged the leftovers and found room for them in the fridge [and] ran the dishwasher.”  This juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic is sharply wonderful, and I found myself wishing for many more such scenes.

The other strength, though not without its issues, is Vaughn’s portrayal of Celia’s emotional turmoil:  her sense of being lost, both in her youth and now in her mid-20s as her life threatens to once again become subservient to her parents’, and her sense that she will never escape the consequence of her youthful choices. These moments can often be quite moving, though sometimes they lack a desired richness or are presented a bit too easily via Celia’s internal monologues, where Vaughn occasionally overwrites the material, telling the reader what we’d rather come to learn on our own, less directly. This last one is an issue that rises several times, as in the earlier penthouse scene when Celia looks out the window and thinks how those with such a view (her parents) might think themselves “gods” — a realization the reader would better arrive at via the description than Celia’s pronouncement.

The larger problem with After the Golden Age is that the flaws slightly outweigh the above strengths. Beyond Celia and Dr. Mentis, the telepathic member of the Olympiad, the characters are pretty one-note and shallowly drawn, especially Celia’s father. Granted, Celia has a pretty one-note view of her dad, but it would have greatly enriched the storyline between them had we as readers seen other sides of him more fully than we do. A potential romance suffers from the same shallow characterization, as well as from a very abrupt shutdown of that plotline even as another romance blooms too abruptly.

The plotting, meanwhile, can be at times far too predictable or too implausible. The villain was simple to spot; several scenes, including the finale, end exactly as one expects them to, and the ending felt both a bit contrived and overly rushed.

After the Golden Age has a lot of potential, but the problems in basic components such as characterization and plotting made it fall short of what it could have been. Thanks to being a sucker for superheroes, I ended up moderately enjoying some of it, while often being annoyed by its issues. However, because it is a very quick read (pacing is a strength), and I enjoyed the sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age (to be reviewed later this week), I’m giving it a tepid recommendation.

~Bill Capossere


After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn fantasy book reviewsIn After the Golden Age, Carrie Vaughn has created an organization of meta-humans which will seem familiar to anyone who’s heard of the DC Comics Justice League: Captain Olympus is invincible and table-shatteringly, wall-bustingly strong. Spark can make flames appear out of thin air or heat nearby objects with a single touch. They are the founding members of The Olympiad, protecting Commerce City with the help of other remarkable superhumans like Breezeway, Typhoon, Bullet, Dr. Mentis, and Earth Mother. Their alter egos are Warren and Suzanne West, successful entrepreneurs and generous philanthropists, parents of one Celia West.

What can Celia do, you ask? What is Celia’s special power? Absolutely nothing. Celia is smart, stubborn, hardworking, loyal to her friends and the city she calls home, but otherwise an average human in every way. She’s been kidnapped so many times by villains trying to manipulate her parents that all the fear has long since passed; it’s passé to the point that she naps while waiting for rescue. Instead of following in her parents’ footsteps, Celia emancipated herself at the age of seventeen, got her GED, worked two jobs to put herself through college, and became a forensic accountant; when After the Golden Age begins, she is tapped to assist with a monumentally important case. The Destructor, longtime foe of The Olympiad, is finally being taken to trial for his crimes — but the information Celia uncovers has far-reaching implications not only for herself but everyone within Commerce City.

Put yourself in my shoes…. Your parents are the greatest superhumans Commerce City has ever known, but you… you can’t even ride a bicycle straight. You can’t win a swim meet. You can’t fly, or read minds, or pyrokinetically manipulate pasta sauce. And your parents can’t hide their disappointment. Tell me: What do you do then?

The focus of After the Golden Age stays strictly on Celia and her dogged efforts to uncover the truth; information is only doled out to the reader when Celia receives it, but she is intelligent, so there are no Mary Sue moments wherein she says, “Gosh, this sure is interesting!” and then ignores whatever clue was given for thirty or fifty pages. The linear progression of the trial is interspersed with flashbacks which illuminate Celia’s rebellious teenage years, her difficult relationship with her parents, and her insistence on hard-fought self-reliance.

Speaking as a completely normal human, I felt such respect for Celia, far more than I ever could for any of the masked persons she interacts with on a regular basis. People might fantasize about what it might be like to be Superman, but the reality of being in Jimmy Olsen’s shoes is far more difficult and disappointing. Carving out an identity which is separate from one’s parents or finding a sense of self-worth despite past mistakes — these are struggles that any adult can appreciate, even if we don’t all have fathers who thought about testing his child’s potential flight abilities by tossing her off a roof. (Celia’s nightmares of this scenario are both a skillful example of her complicated relationship with her parents and completely horrifying; Vaughn has just added a new dimension to an extremely common night terror of my own, and I guess I owe her thanks… ?)

Normally, I despise when books are described as “page-turners,” because that’s nonsensical. How else can one read a printed novel but by turning the pages? But honestly, this was such a joy to read, and as much as I told myself, “Just a few more pages, and then I’ll go to sleep,” I ended up staying awake all through the night just so that I wouldn’t have to wait for the conclusion. If you like superhero comics, or if you like well-structured novels with satisfyingly human protagonists, then I highly recommend After the Golden Age.

~Jana Nyman

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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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3 comments

  1. This sounds great! There is a movie called “Sky High” that basically deals with the same theme (and it might be a comic book) but it sounds like Vaughn is choosing to take a serious look at the idea.

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