Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Mmm mmm mmm, yes indeed. I like superhero novels, but they don’t always work for me, and often I find myself more disappointed and critical of them than I want to be considering how avidly I seek them out. I was nervous starting After the Golden Age finally after having it on my to-read list for years. What if I didn’t like it? Should I even bother? I’m glad I did, though, because I thoroughly enjoyed this. Carrie Vaughn’s treatment of this world with superpowered people is sympathetic, compassionate, and human, and I loved almost all of it.
Celia West is the daughter of the city’s two most powerful superheroes, yet she lacks powers herself (TVTropes!). After spending much of her teens being kidnapped by would-be supervillains following the outing of her parents’ identities, Celia has managed to carve out a mostly-normal life for herself as an accountant. That is, until she gets kidnapped again, and when her parents’ arch-nemesis is on trial (for tax evasion of all things), Celia finds herself at the centre of a bizarre and convoluted series of events that threaten the city as well as her own, fragile family bonds. She takes it upon herself to dig deeper into the city’s past and the origins of her family and the other heroes here. But what she finds is going to upset a lot more people….
I was a little worried that this book would be boring and that the protagonist would lack depth, that she would be this one-dimensional character mired in self-pity for lacking the superpowers that her parents have. Or worse, that Vaughn would somehow have her acquire powers halfway through the novel, and that her arc would simply equate redemption with being able to kick ass faster than a speeding bullet. Fortunately, there is a lot more depth here. Celia’s skills are the ones she learned, from life or school or other people, and as a result of being estranged from her parents, she is a very independent person.
For a novel about superheroes, there is actually relatively little superpowered action here. We only ever vaguely learn about Captain Olympus’ and Spark’s superpowers and abilities, and we only see them in action a handful of times. The same can be said for the “B-list” superheroes in town. In fact, I might go so far as to say that this book isn’t about superheroes so much as Vaughn uses the setting and tropes of a superhero world to tell a story about family, and perhaps that is why it is so successful. Sure, Vaughn could tell a story about a dysfunctional father–daughter relationship in a world much more similar to our own—but would I have been as interested? Probably not. The superhero thing is an admirable gimmick to get me to keep reading.
After the Golden Age reminds me a lot of Mystery Men. It’s not quite as gonzo as the latter is, for that movie is definitely lampooning superhero movies even as it explores deeper issues with them. But there is a similar sensation of uncanniness, of a world similar to ours yet also so different because it has superheroes in it, that Vaughn captures here. In particular, I really like the way Celia struggles after the dark secret in her past is outed. It sucks and is unfair, the way she’s treated, and in some cases I think Vaughn has people turn on her a little too easily or dramatically. Still, it allows her to probe the delicate question of how we forgive people and move on from mistakes people made when they were much younger. As Celia herself points out, she has become a very different person from who she was when she was 17. Does that matter?
There are two things that don’t work for me in this story. One made me uncomfortable; the other just feels contrived.
Celia and Arthur’s romance made me uncomfortable. Firstly, as her parents observe, he has known her since she was a child. That’s a little creepy. But maybe I could get over that, since they are both consenting adults, except he does have that whole mind-reading/influencing thing going on. And that seems to create a kind of unfair power dynamic. I understand that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him, especially given the way Celia discovers he hasn’t really been coping all that well with being alone, but I’d still be wary.
The way that the mayor turns out to be the villain and the coincidental grandson of the Destructor? I wouldn’t call it “far-fetched” because this is a book about superheroes, but it just feels like Vaughn is tying everything together a little too neatly. I’m not sure how much this really added to the story.
In the end, these are minor complaints. After the Golden Age is a lot of fun but also quite serious—I was tearing up at the end, although I think partly that was just because I was feeling more emotional that day. This is definitely up there with the other superhero novels I’ve enjoyed, so if like me you want more superhero fiction but have been burned by some bad stuff before, you should give this a try.