Author: Carrie Vaughn
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Super-heroes
Publication date: April 2011
Hardcover: 304 pages
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 .
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: We both got review copies from the publisher.
Why did we read this book: Because it sounded good. Plus, we are major super-hero geeks
Ana: What do I expect when picking up a book about superheroes to read? I expect to be at the very least entertained; I expect it to be fun. Anything beyond that is added bonus. After the Golden Age met my expectations right on the head: I devoured this book. More than that, it provided me food for thought on the nature of heroism which in this case, counts as the aforementioned added bonus. Although it is not a perfect book, I did have a great time reading it.
Thea: I’m familiar with Carrie Vaughn’s work, having read her Kitty Norville series and one of her YA offerings (Steel). Although I’ve had varied experiences with these books, I’ve been entertained by all of them, and so was very excited to see Ms. Vaughn tackle the superhero world with After the Golden Age. And you know what? I liked it. I really, truly liked it and found myself drawn into the story and unwilling to put the book down until I had finished the entire thing. Although there are a few niggles and character issues that bothered me along the way, After the Golden Age is a wonderful homage to the superheroes of old, and a damn fun book at the same time.
On the Plot:
Ana: Celia West is the only daughter of the world’s greatest superheroes, the two leaders of the Olympiad (the superteam that protects the citizens of Commerce City). Having no superpowers of her own, Celia is an accountant who tries to lead her life as far away from her parents’ lifestyle as much as she can, but unfortunately the shadow of her estranged super-parents follows her everywhere she goes. When she is called by the DA’s office to help prosecute the super villain The Destructor for tax fraud, Celia is pushed back into the life she wished she could leave behind and simply forget. But then she stumbles upon a secret that could change everything.
The plot of After the Golden Age is two-fold: Part mystery, part coming-of-age. The first relates a series of crimes affecting Commerce City with new villains coming into the game just as The Destructor seems to be taking a back seat – or is he? This new series of crimes is what leads Celia to start investigating the past and possible connections between The Destructor and The Olympiad and the mystery surrounding the very beginning of super-powered beings. Although the answer to the mystery was heavily telegraphed and easy to guess, the point was to actually inspire the discussion about whether superheroes are born or made. This to me, is quite possibly the best aspect of the novel (or any other novels about superheroes, really). Although, I don’t think this was explored with the depth it deserved, it still made for an interesting side aspect of the novel making it more of a Watchmen -like read than say, a JLA one.
The other main theme is Celia’s role in all this and her coming of age. Although it sounds weird to say that since she is of course, a woman and not a young girl it seemed that up to the point where the novel started, she had been living in a limbo of self-denial, but more on that later on.
Thea: From a pure writing and storytelling standpoint, Carrie Vaughn is at the top of her game with After the Golden Age. The pace of the story clips along quickly and adeptly, as Celia gradually puts the pieces together and figures out not only the mystery of the recent crime spree in her city, but also uncovers some old family history. While I completely agree with Ana that the mystery was pretty transparent, and some of Celia’s actions whilst uncovering the truth are headdeskingly frustrating, the storytelling is so even-handed that none of that obviousness truly seemed to matter. In many ways, After the Golden Age reads just like a traditional Urban Fantasy novel – there’s the same isolated heroine, the same peril facing some urban location that only the heroine can stop (even though she doesn’t want to get involved).
Now, while the storytelling is great, I enjoyed myself, and sped through the book like Breezeway (one of the superheroes in the Olympiad), there were a few mechanical and thematic things that bothered me. First, when Celia does all her “research” and discovers the truth of West Corporation’s medical experiments (at about halfway through the book) and also draws a conclusion about an unlikely villain, instead of telling anyone about her earth-shattering discoveries, she decides to keep it quiet because…she doesn’t have enough evidence? Or something? I really, really dislike these plot devices, wherein characters know things but choose not to tell them in order to build tension and ultimately result in calamity later, after which the character will look back in tear-streaked regret screaming, If ONLY I told them!, whilst shaking their fists dramatically at the sky. Ahem.
This next part is a minor spoiler – so if you don’t want to know, look away! The other problem I had with the story was in the revelation of a key emotion that can be engineered/inspired that will: stop criminals, end murder, and foster superheroes. Besides the fact that this supermachine was haphazardly thrown into the story in the last 20 pages or so (and felt very much like a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger villain device, super campy and cartoony in nature), I didn’t really like the emotion that is singled out as the cause for superheroics. It changes the whole slant of the story and the psychology of the characters, implying that they do what they do not just because they know it is right and good, but because somehow that has been engineered in their DNA. That does not sit well with me at all.
On the Characters:
Ana: Celia was an insufferable character walking around with a chip on her shoulder and for the majority of the book she complains and whines about her terrible childhood, how she wants to be independent and recognised as an individual rather than a member of the West family. The thing is, I don’t think she was supposed to be a likeable character at all but she was in my opinion a sympathetic and relatable one, despite all that.
Because you see, I understand her problems.[1. I mean, inasmuch one can understand someone with this sort of problem, it’s not like I have super-powered parents or anything. Of course. I think. Unless they are *gasp* UNDERCOVER.] Can you imagine growing up in a family of super-powered people, with everybody expecting YOU to become a super-hero as well, all of your movements observed since early childhood to see if you develop super strength or the ability to fly and then when none of that happens, you are met with frustration and disappointment? Not only from your parents but yours as well because of course, you want to be a super-hero too? That’s Celia’s childhood – not to mention that her father is not exactly a good parent at all, being aggressive and distant. So, there are some real issues there not to mention the worst case of Teen rebellion ever, when Celia joined forces with a super-villain just to irritate her parents. Although I don’t think this was explored with the seriousness it deserved beyond Celia saying she regretted it half-assedly.
All considered, I truly enjoyed her journey though – to find a place in this world, a place that would be possible for her to help out and that the embodiment of what heroism truly means.
Another character I loved was (and Thea will say: of course you did, dear Ana) Dr. Mentis. I won’t spoil much about how fits in the overall story but I have this enormous sympathy for Telepaths. This has got to be the worst, most problematic superpower that exists because of the ethical repercussions of using their powers. I would have liked to see more discussion about this ethical issue although I think I understand what made Celia SO comfortable with having her mind read all the time – it just made it easier for her to be understood. I guess. Maybe.
Thea: I began this book and immediately, Celia got on my nerves. Yes, she’s had to grow up with the pressure of her parents’ success pushing down on her, the fact that she has no superpowers, blah blah blah. At the same time, she’s a freaking multibillionaire, has inherited her mom’s smoking hotness, and despite not having any superpowers, she’s got a good head on her shoulders. Poor little rich girl, indeed.
That said, I think Ana makes a great point – Celia’s not really supposed to be likable (at least…I don’t think she is). She’s like…the little sister/cousin/friend that still thinks and acts like a teenager, despite being in their twenties. She’s the kind of character that whines about not being taken seriously, when she even still refers to herself as a child and her parents and the Olympiad as “grown-ups.” She’s the kind of character that refuses anyone watching her, despite the fact that she gets kidnapped on a regular basis, just because she wants her “freedom.”[2. SERIOUSLY, the girl gets kidnapped no less than four times in this book. Five, if you count a flashback. You would think that after getting kidnapped on such a frequent basis, she’d wise up. Maybe take a Krav Maga class. SOMETHING. But no, it’s get kidnapped, call mommy and daddy, get rescued, be surly to them for rescuing you.]
In short, she’s a huge freaking pain in the ass.
BUT. She grows over the course of the book, finally gets her head out of her ass (sort of) and makes atonement for the mistakes of her past. And that’s kind of cool. Celia is a frustrating character, but for however annoying, she was certainly fleshed out and believable. I only wish that her parents were a little more detailed in the book – we never learn much about her father beyond his temper and superpowers, or about her mother beyond her weepiness and ability to cook a good marinara. Celia’s relationship with her family is so complex and layered, and I wish it could have been explored more fully.
And as for the rest of the cast…no one is really detailed in any of the same length as Celia, with the exception of Arthur Mentis. And yes, Ana, OF COURSE you loved him. I felt like the romance angle in this book was a bit rushed and lacked finesse, but I did like the match itself.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: As I said, I devoured this book like I usually devour a bag of crisps. It was fun, it had some awesome moments there (I loved the ending) and despite its flaws, it was just a cool super-hero book.
Thea: After the Golden Age is a solid, quick read that does its job: it entertains. It’s a fun book, like Ana says, and a good candidate for a quick road trip or poolside read.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Celia took the late bus home, riding along with other young workaholic professionals, the odd student, and late-shift retail clerks. A quiet, working bunch, cogs and wheels that kept Commerce City running.
Only a block away from the office, the person in the seat behind her leaned forward and spoke in her ear:
“Get off at the next stop.”
She hadn’t noticed him before. He was ordinary; in his thirties, he had a rugged, stubbled face, and wore jeans and a button-up shirt. He looked like he belonged. With a lift to his brow, he glared at her over the back of the plastic seat and raised the handgun from his lap. Without moving his gaze, he pushed the stop call button by the window.
Damn, not again.
Her heart pounded hard — with anger. Not fear, she reminded herself. Her fists clenched, her face a mask, she stood. She could hardly move her legs, wanting only to turn and throttle the bastard for interrupting her evening.
He stood with her, following a step behind as she moved forward toward the door. He could stop her before she called to the driver for help. And what could the driver do, but stand aside as her kidnapper waved the gun at him?
She was still two miles from home. She could try to run — in pumps and a dress suit. Right. Really, she only had to run far enough away to duck into a corner and call 9-1-1. Or her parents.
9-1-1. That was what she’d do.
She didn’t dig in the pocket of her attaché for her phone. Did nothing that would give away her plan. She stepped off the bus, onto the sidewalk. Her kidnapper disembarked right behind her.
“Turn right. Walk five steps.”
She turned right. Her muscles tensed, ready —
The bus pulled away. She prepared to launch herself into a run.
A sedan stopped at the curb. Two men jumped out of the back, and the kidnapper from the bus grabbed her arm. The three surrounded her and spirited her into the car, which rolled away in seconds.
They’d planned this, hadn’t they?
In the backseat, one of the men tied her hands in front of her with nylon cord. The other pressed a gun to her ribs.
The one from the bus sat on the passenger side of the front seat and looked back at her.
“You’re Warren and Suzanne West’s daughter.”
Not like this was news.
“What will the Olympiad do to keep you safe?”
“You’ll have to ask them,” she said.
“I will.” He grinned, a self-satisfied, cat-with-the-canary grin that she recognized from a half-dozen two-bit hoodlums who thought they’d done something clever, that they’d figured out how to corner the Olympiad. As if no one else had tried this before.
“What are you going to do with me?” She said it perfunctorily. It was a way to make conversation. Maybe distract him.
His grin widened. “We’re going to send your parents a message. With the Destructor out of the picture, the city’s wide open for a new gang to move in. The Olympiad is going to stay out of our way, or you get hurt.”
He really was stupid enough to tell her his plan. Amateurs.
Wasn’t much she could do until he’d sent the message and the Olympiad learned what had happened. She’d leave the hard work to them. She always did.
Then, of course, they blindfolded her so she couldn’t keep track of their route. By the time they stopped, she had no idea where they were. Someplace west, by the docks maybe. The air smelled of concrete and industry.
A stooge on each arm pulled her out of the car and guided her down a corridor. They must have parked inside a building. Her feet stepped on tile, and the walls felt close. Finally, they pushed her into a hard wooden chair and tied her wrists to its arms.
The blindfold came off. Before her, a video camera was mounted on a tripod.
The man from the bus stood next to the camera. She smirked at him, and his frown deepened. He probably expected her to be frightened, crying and begging him to let her go. Giving him that power of fear over her.
She had already been as frightened as she was ever likely to be in her life. This guy was nothing.
“Read this.” He lifted a piece of paper with large writing.
She just wanted to go home. Have some hot cocoa and cookies. Supper had been microwave ramen and her stomach was growling. The blindfold had messed up her short red hair, making it itch, and she couldn’t reach up to scratch it. Irrationally, she thought of her parents, and her anger began to turn toward them. If it wasn’t for them and what they were. . .
Thinking like that had gotten her in trouble before. She focused on her captor. This was his fault.
She skimmed over the text, groaned. They couldn’t even be a little creative. “Are you kidding?”
“Just read it.”
In a frustrated monotone, she did as she was told.
“I’m Celia West, and I’m being held in an undisclosed location. If the Olympiad has not responded to their demands in six hours, my captors cannot guarantee my safety–”
She glared an inquiry.
“Couldn’t you sound. . .you know. Scared or something?”
“Sorry. But you know I’ve done this before. This isn’t exactly new to me.”
“They all say that.”
Additional Thoughts: Like superhero books? Enjoyed this one and want moars? Here is a short list for further reading:
Ana: 6 – Good
Thea: 6 – Good, recommended with some reservations
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