After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
Superheroes have been a part of our culture for decades. Figures such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are just as familiar to us as any legendary person out of actual history. And these mighty warriors have gained more fame in recent years as the film industry has updated them for the new millennium. Novels, too, have provided us with heroes to admire, and Carrie Vaughn’s newest book joins these ranks. After the Golden Age is a deeply affecting tale of the hero in each of us.
Celia West is an accountant, specializing in the kind of forensic work that helps bring criminals to justice. She lives in a modest apartment and appears to be, for all intents and purposes, normal. But she’s the daughter of Warren and Suzanne West, also known as Captain Olympus and Spark, Commerce City’s greatest superheroes. This makes Celia a favorite target for someone looking for a prime hostage.
But Celia’s efforts to stay out of the limelight are thwarted when her boss assigns her to the Simon Sito case. Sito, the Destructor, has a long and storied history with her family. Forced back into the world of the more-than-human, she is forced to confront—and answer for—secrets about herself that she’s long kept buried. And when her investigations turn up even more shocking secrets, she has to question almost everything that she’s known about the way her world works.
Before anything else, I have to admit that this novel puts me in mind of Pixar’s wonderful animated film The Incredibles, and in a very good way. Just as viewers got to know both Mr. Incredible and Bob Parr, so Vaughn shows readers both sides of all of the superhuman characters. The four main heroes of the Olympiad—Captain Olympus, Spark, Bullet and Dr. Mentis—have known Celia since her childhood, and thus the author is able to use her relationships with them to open a window into their dual natures.
This also gives Vaughn the opportunity to break a few stereotypes along the way: Captain Olympus, far from being a model of patience, has a truly nasty temper; Spark tends to cry when emotional; Bullet seems to be a bit goofy and laid-back; and Dr. Mentis is the most non-judgmental telepath I’ve ever seen. Far from ruining their “super” image, these flaws humanize them in ways that, again, make me think of The Incredibles. I will admit, Dr. Mentis quickly became my favorite character. Although he rarely gives away what he’s thinking, it’s that lack of judgment that makes him so easy to like.
Dr. Mentis may be my favorite, but that in no way diminishes my admiration for the author’s portrayal of Celia. Watching her struggles throughout the novel actually evoked sadness for me. Without giving too much away, Celia is forced to endure the pain of being judged for something that she did years before, with almost nobody taking into account the person that she had become between that event and the present-day of the story. It’s an all too common phenomenon, and Vaughn played it off so well that it’s impossible not to feel empathy for Celia. She’s a unique and complex “Everyman” character, and her actions remind us that we all have the capacity to be heroes in our own ways.
I was a little surprised at the direction that the plot went, but that’s because the dust jacket text made it sound like the uncovering of Celia’s secret was the crux of the story. But that reveal happens fairly early on, and the novel begins to delve deeper into events around Celia’s current situation. This is hardly a flaw, as the jacket text shouldn’t reflect on the story, but it did give me a moment of “Wait a second…” as things were revealed far faster than I was expecting.
But the plot that fills the space is satisfyingly action-packed, if a bit easy to predict in spots. I had suspicions early on as to who the bad guys were, and I was right, although I didn’t see the direction that said bad guys would go. And there are enough twists and turns as events play out that the novel doesn’t lag.
If the characters put me in mind of The Incredibles, the novel as a whole brings to mind the direction that most superhero stories have taken: watching our traditional heroes faced with an ever skeptical world. This novel eschews the simplicity of former years, where Superman would save the day and be applauded for doing so, and instead embraces the aura of The Dark Knight and the television show Heroes. The admiration is there, but tinged with the sense of entitlement that people are shown to feel towards their idols—“Either you perform to our expectations or we won’t support you anymore”. It’s lightly felt in After the Golden Age, but there are enough hints of it add an air of gentle melancholy to the Olympiad and their growing trials.
While I love Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels, she has written something truly memorable in After the Golden Age. Without sinking to the gritty depths that some other tales have, Vaughn guides us through a realistic story of superheroes and those who are closest to them. Thrilling and affecting by turns, After the Golden Age showcases Vaughn’s considerable writing skills and provides readers with a memorable novel that you’ll want to read over and over again.