Melissa McShane's Reviews > After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
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May 23, 2012

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bookshelves: action-adventure, science-fiction, own, superheroes

When I reviewed (elsewhere) Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand last year, I said I felt Carrie Vaughn was writing down to her audience just a little--that she had more literary ability in her than was on display in that book, or series. (Don't misunderstand; I like the Kitty Norville series a lot and I think it's one of the best in the urban fantasy subgenre. There are just moments where Vaughn makes comments, either as narrator or in dialogue, that are a lot more intellectually elevated than everything around them.) I think After the Golden Age proves that theory. In description, dialogue, and even plot, it's more mature than Vaughn's earlier works, and I'm glad to see her doing something beyond just the one series.

The main character, Celia West, is the child of two powerful superheroes, and ones whose civilian identity is known to everyone. Celia, a completely non-super-powered person, pays the price for this by being easy prey for anyone who wants to challenge her parents. So she's been kidnapped who knows how many times since she was in her late teens, which makes it nearly impossible for her to establish her own identity. The return of the Destructor, her personal nemesis as well as the most terrible villain her parents ever defeated, forces her to actually confront her parents, her past, her identity, and her choices for the future.

There's a strong similarity to the movies Sky High and The Incredibles here--Celia's relationship with her parents echoes the first movie, and the difficulty of juggling private and public identities reflects the second. If After the Golden Age seemed slightly inferior to these, I think it's just because superheroic stories benefit so much from a visual component. I loved the superheroes Vaughn invented--she definitely gave them and their powers a lot of thought, pros and cons both. I also liked that there were all these superheroes running around the city and they didn't all know each other's secret identities. Celia's having grown up around masked avengers makes her able to spot the hero Typhoon when she's out of costume, and they end up becoming good friends, which leads to some awkward moments when she encounters Celia's parents--she knows who they are, they don't know who she is, she wants to maintain her identity, etc. And despite being a little put off by his name, I liked Arthur Mentis a lot. (Seriously. He's a telepath and his name happens to be Mentis? His family name, not his superhero handle?) He's sweet and patient and very much in control of his ability, despite its being a handicap to developing close relationships with anyone.

One of the more off-putting story elements was Celia's relationship with her mercurial and super-strong father. It's realistic that they butt heads all the time because they're so much alike, but it always felt as if there was some deeper reason for her father's attitude towards her. There was at least one moment where her father came close to losing his temper, and Celia cringed; to me, that read like the behavior of an abuse victim, and implied some event in the past that put all of that into perspective. But there wasn't. Toward the end, there's a short flashback where we see her father reading all sorts of meanings into everything his baby does: will she have super strength, flight, heat vision...and of course we know that she never gets any of those things, so it's implied that his disappointment about that spilled over into disappointment with her--but that makes him an extremely unsympathetic character. I also wasn't satisfied with the ending, which wrapped up all the loose ends in the span of one chapter. It felt rushed, and it felt like Vaughn was deliberately cutting off any possibility of writing a sequel. But to me, the book already felt like a complete story, not one that needed a second or even third volume, so that final chapter seemed heavy-handed.

There's a scene near the middle of the action--the turning point of Celia's story, really--in which she meets the now-retired Hawk, a superhero in the Batman mode who was the first of the "vigilante" costumed heroes. Celia tells him that she can't go out and stop the Destructor's plan because she's not like her parents, she doesn't have superpowers. He tells her, "Neither did I." After the Golden Age isn't just about the super-powered heroes; Celia West stands for all those ordinary people who put on the costume anyway.
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Hallie I read your review before reading the book and was keeping an eye out for what you said about Celia's relationship with her father. To me, that seemed really well handled, because it both made sense on the superhero level and the real-life one. Her father is a good man in most respects, with a strong devotion to duty and doing the right thing, but in comic book style, he has huge flaws too - lack of compassion and patience, inability to control his temper when frustrated in doing things HIS way in particular. I don't think he needs to have actually hit Celia directly to have been emotionally abusive and physically threatening. On the more realist level, I thought he made a lot of sense as the kind of person who confusingly combines enormous responsibility and maturity in some aspects of their lives with hugely immature emotional responses. So, yes, I agree he was extremely unsympathetic, but he was unsympathetic in that heartbreaking way that comes from realising how he could have been different. That little flashback seemed to show how he was capable of being loving, if he hadn't got stuck in the emotionally stunted state and destroyed his relationship with Celia. Though maybe I'm just more easily played by authorial heart-string tugging than I should be. :)

I quite liked the thread tying- up final chapter, though I suspect you're right about its actual merit. It won me over by the combination of (view spoiler)

Melissa McShane The problem I had with Celia's dad being abusive--and I agree with you that he didn't have to hit her to be abusive--is that she reacted in that scene in a way I associate with actual, physical, violent abuse, and that clearly wasn't the case. And even if she knew he wouldn't hit her, but cringed away because he'd threatened her before--and this wasn't just a twitch; it was a get-out-of-danger reaction--isn't that still evidence of an abusive relationship? You said yourself that he didn't need to hit Celia to be emotionally abusive and physically threatening; if that's the case, then I think there's good reason to look at the rest of his behavior in that light. (Compassion for the abuser--that would be truly complex.)

But I'm not saying her dad *is* abusive. I just think that Vaughn made a mistake in writing this scene the way she did. All the other evidence points to him being the man you describe, whether textually or inferentially evident, but the possibility of abuse is serious enough that it calls other stuff into question, and that was something Vaughn should have considered, in my opinion.

I don't know. I think everything you've said is a plausible reading, but to me, it wasn't that obvious from the text. This was a book where most of what disappointed me came not from the content, but from how the author presented her material. Celia's dad should have been that complex; to me there wasn't enough textual support for it. The ending had good material; Vaughn crammed it all into one place. It's possible I'm demanding too much literary perfection of the book. I would just like her to finally reach the potential I believe she's capable of.

(Also, I liked it enough that I didn't return it to the bookstore out of sheer annoyance. I've done that with three books so far this year.)

Hallie I'm not sure we're actually disagreeing. Well, except that I think that scene in which she flinched away from her dad was good and you think it was a mistake. :P Okay, my take clarified. To me, Celia's dad WAS abusive, because he was threatening, rejecting and unable to see how his behaviour had harmed his daughter. Obviously I'm using 'abusive' to mean in a wider sense than that he hit her or otherwise intentionally physically harmed her. And I absolutely believe that he could cause that kind of flinch reaction without having hit her in the past. In that though, I'm probably basing a lot of my response on a friend's experience - her husband at the time was - it seemed to people for a long time - a lovely, gentle man. But at home he was very different, and though he'd never hit his wife (or kids), threw and punched things right beside her. Given that he was over 6 foot and she was quite small, it was horribly frightening, and eventually she was advised by professionals to get a restraining order on him. And the fact that he hadn't actually hit her didn't prevent his evoking that physical fear response. I'm not saying this to try to gain points in the argument or anything - it's just something that kept coming into my mind when I was reading, and stayed with me when I was thinking it over after.

The sympathy for the abuser thing is complicated, isn't it? I mean, some cases of abusive parents you CAN hold both sympathy for the abuser and an understanding that it absolutely is an abusive relationship which is just wrong for the child. But where it's too much to feel any sympathy for them I don't know.

Melissa McShane Yeah. I think what we really disagree about is what that behavior says about Celia's dad and how it applies to the rest of his behavior. Because we do agree that such a reaction is consistent with abuse, whichever kind of abuse we think it was. To me, though, whether he actually hit Celia or was just extremely violent (and it's true, I've known situations like the one you describe, and I don't think it's acceptable to say it's less abusive just because there's no physical contact)--either way, it still says he's abusive, and that's at odds with the characterization of him as simply having trouble controlling his emotions, or lacking patience, or even just being the kind of guy who doesn't know how to relate to his child. If he *is* an abusive parent, I have no sympathy for him, and I question whether the good parts of his character are exculpatory enough to turn that around.

See, my instinct is that Celia's relationship with her father, despite this event, is *not* an abusive one and that Vaughn never intended it to be such. It's too much of a strong reading to take that one instance and apply it to every other aspect of their relationship--for instance, it would make Celia's leaving home more like a victim's fleeing her tormentor than a young woman trying to escape her parents' shadow. In every other event where Celia and her father interact, I think it's more reasonable to interpret their relationship as the understandably stormy conflict between two people who are far too much alike to get along comfortably. There's only one point where her dad looks like an abuser, so I call that an outlier--which is why I think Vaughn screwed up there, because we both interpreted his behavior as abusive instead of simply...I don't know, frustration? Self-centeredness?

So then the next question is--you still had a very positive read on his character despite thinking he was abusive. Why do you think that is? Because I also thought he was abusive, and that turned into a very negative read on my part. Maybe I've been looking at this the wrong way; if he is actually abusive, and we're talking sympathy for the abuser (in the sense of understanding that he's more than just a mindless violence machine) then that makes the character, and by extension the book, a lot more complex than I initially thought.

Hallie Okay, that's a lot clearer - though I do still feel that her father is shown as having become so emotionally distant and unable to appreciate Celia for who she is that it's a significant factor in their relationship.(That being in response to its just being the table-breaking incident that suggests abusive relationship.) I'm pretty sure that there are a couple of occasions on which Arthur calls him on it - once in a flashback after she's found with the bad guy and Arthur says something about the dad not having paid any attention to Celia when she obviously adored him.

Also, I think I may have been a bit imprecise in calling him "good" despite thinking he's to at least some degree an abusive parent. I mean that he's dedicated his life to protecting the innocent/weaker than he, and it's pretty clear that he would not be corruptible, as many super-powerful people would be, rather than a more full evaluation of him as 'good'. Actually now I'm getting even more interested in this conversation, because it's suddenly reminded me of, of all things, Murder in the Cathedral (which I studied in secondary school, a very, very long time ago!), and the depiction of Becket's temptations. One of them, I *think* was the temptation to be a martyr because it was the clearest demonstration of his goodness and faith. And it's kind of analogous to how I feel Celia's dad is drawn - as a character who has a good set of values wrt the world, and is honest and hard-working, but has forgotten that his superpowers don't really make him better than anyone else. And especially, that his daughter is not to be viewed as further validation of his awesomeness. It did feel as if it would have taken a stronger *emotional* character than his to remain level-headed about his own flaws and self-centredness and how they hurt others.

I think her mother's interesting too, because on the one hand, how hellish would it be to have a husband who treated your child that way? But she also seems to love him, and I kind of felt that she may have managed to convince herself that the problem really WAS just that father and daughter were too alike. Which I agree, was a problem with them where they were at the time of the book's action, but which also was shown to have had nothing to do with the problems' development. Does that make any sense?

Also again, I'm not at all sure I can be in any way objective about this question atm - loving parents behaving in bad parent manner is a somewhat touchy topic for me. (For reasons I'll explain by PM, rather than here.) Also - were comments here always limited to two-line box-space? I'm pretty sure not, but it makes it much harder to get thoughts down with any sense!

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