J.'s Reviews > After the Golden Age

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
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's review
Jul 31, 2012

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bookshelves: superheroics, urban-fantasy
Recommended for: Be prepared to crack it open for the superhero nostaligia, but read it for the family dynamics.
Read from April 18 to July 10, 2012

3.5 Stars

What inspires true heroism? This novel has an alternative answer - one that the reader may or may not accept by the time that they're finished with this book.

This novel was my first foray into tales of superheroes that weren't adaptations from known comic book properties, and it wasn't what I was expecting - which is not a bad thing. Carrie Vaughn crafts a familiar yet cold world of superheroes, civilians, villains, family issues and real-world problems worthy of exploration and examination. The Golden Age of comics conjures images of infallible heroes, irredeemable criminals, and the pride and comfort of knowing that the designated good guys are always right. After the Golden Age dares to suggest that not only were those golden days actually tarnished all along, but that the shiny gilded edges of our memories cast a nostalgia-clouded reflection that blinds us to the flaws of the past.

Celia West, a non-powered heir to a superheroic legacy, has superpowered problems. In the beginning of the book, she seems a self-deprecating everywoman with some persistent, occasionally gun-toting baggage stemming from her childhood. Not unexpected in a story where the protagonist is the admittedly uncredible black sheep of an unusual family. But as the novel progresses (with frustratingly little in-story progress), you begin to recognize something off-putting about Celia and her skewed, embittered perspective. This is a woman who completely allows her past to define her, and is caught in a stage of arrested development mentally and emotionally. The shame of an immature and dangerous act from her youth colors her every impulse and muddies her every relationship. To be honest, it's pretty exasperating. Celia isn't a very likeable character. There's just not enough there to work with. Her residual teen angst forces her to come across as much younger than her actual age and the unreliability of her anxiety-fueled narration restricts the emotional connection between reader and protagonist. By mid-point of the novel, you'll find yourself wanting to yell at her to "grow up and get over it!" By the ending, you're still not entirely sure that she has.

There's a couple of romantic entanglements that just sort of happen along the way to the rather lackluster climax. The friendships aren't very well-defined and the secondary characters are so shallowly represented that they practically require a memo to remember their names, powers and secret identities. This may be a clever allusion to the superficial nature of characterization during the Golden Age in comics, and perhaps a controversial commentary on the treatment of all relationships - platonic and otherwise - of characters in the comic book medium. Just as acknowledging and dealing with the imperfections of the people we love and the expression of that love is a major issue that Celia struggles with, so is acknowledging the imperfections of the so-loved comics from which this story draws. Then again, maybe the background characters (barring one, who mysteriously appears only to quickly disappear again) truly are that unmemorable.

The real meat of this novel is the family drama that results from Celia's strained interactions with her mother and father. Interestingly, the portrayal of the senior Wests as neglectful, distant and inherently perilous as parents is notably similar to what children with superhero parents experience in modern comics. It's understandable why Celia is who she (if at times nearly intolerably) is. The complexity and subtlety of the relationships between the three West family members is what elevates this novel above a mere caped caper and presents a grown-up tale of what it would really be like to be a child in a world that was originally conceived as harmless, beat 'em up entertainment for children. It is the melancholic yearning for a love that may or may not exist within the family that resonates emotionally with the reader and humanizes the superheroes and their civilian offspring.

As for the plot... I was underwhelmed. Almost all action was secondary to Celia's near constant internal self-flogging. Her "data gathering" throughout the story was meandering and dull. The "twist-ending" felt rushed and underdeveloped. By the time you find out the who's, what's and why's, you've bypassed a handful of more interesting paths that the plot could have taken yet chose to forgo. There's just very little to care about in regards to the over-arching storyline. Intellectually, it makes sense as to why what is happening to Commerce City is bad, but it doesn't even make sense in-story until the penultimate chapter as to why the protagonist cares so much. The main antagonist's obligatory evil plan is largely contrived, while the revelation about the nature of superheroism is ultimately superfluous. I'll say it this way: If this story had been written to its greatest strengths, it would not be a superhero story at all.

At the book's unexpectedly moving and bittersweet end, Celia has an exchange with her love interest that leaves you wondering if her view of her father, much like a society's view of an era, is also defined by the hazy reflections on the gleaming gilded edges of a tarnished Golden Age.

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