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Book Review: After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

Genre: Urban Fantasy, Superheroes
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
ISBN-10: 0765325551
ISBN-13: 978-0765325556
Author Website: Carrie Vaughn

Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart
You’re shaking my confidence daily
Oh, Cecilia, I’m down on my knees
I’m begging you please to come home.

Simon and Garfunkel “Cecilia”

In this homage to Golden Age comics, author Carrie Vaughn explores nature vs. nurture, family dynamics, and superpowers. After the Golden Age follows Celia West – normal child of Commerce City’s greatest superheroes Captain Olympus and Spark, the leaders of the Olympiad – as she tries to make a life. A constant kidnap victim ever since her identity as more than the daughter of the most posh couple of Commerce City, Celia just wants to do her job as forensic accountant. But with the trial of supervillain The Destructor looming, Celia is even more of a target, both as leverage against her parents, and because of her teenage connection to The Destructor. Meanwhile, her job as a forensic accountant leads her on an archeological dig into the reasons for her parent’s superpowers, even as a new supervillain seems to be arising from the ashes of The Destructor’s failures.

Vaughn’s superhero story blends the best bits of the superhero genre together to explore a dysfunctional family relationship. Celia, – a attention-grabbing if occasionally whiny character – struggles with being a disappointment to her mom and dad. Totally ungifted, Celia desires nothing more than to get as far away as she can from the disappointed looks of her parents. But she can’t. Her parents are prominent both for their heroics and for their successful business. She simply cannot run far enough. Angst-ridden, Celia tries to navigate the uncertain waters, to make a personality of herself separate from her parents, to be seen as an individual rather than as an appendage. Like all comics of a certain age, Vaughn’s character explores adolescence while indulging the teenage desire for greatness.

Twenty-something Celia’s relationship to her parents is explored through flashbacks. As each occurs over the course of the novel, the difficulties the child Celia encountered are elucidated, as well as the bad decisions she made in her quest for identity. Though this is a good way for Vaughn to explore Celia’s character, at times the transitions from the current moment into the flashback can be abrupt and the transition out of the flashback and back into the present can lack definition.

Though the narrative follows a predictable plotline (readers of superhero comics will probably guess with decent accuracy it’s ending with little effort) it is still quite entertaining. The story is character-driven, and though Celia is a bit given to self-pity in the beginning of the novel, by the end she is a strong, self-willed, stubborn, and capable woman whose self-worth is taken on her own terms. After the Golden Age has everything readers look for in a paranormal urban fantasy – a lone wolf female protagonist, third person limited perspective, a love triangle involving a policeman, and a interpersonal relationship focused tale. The only real difference is that Vaughn’s novel uses superheroes instead of werewolves and vampires as tropes. After the Golden Age is easily connectable, a book the reader will be comfortable with in terms of character, plot and theme, while enjoying the altered specifics.

Vaughn’s story is a prose version of many a comic book. Using her own pantheon of superheroes and villains, she explores many of the same themes that comics have done for years. Undeniably, After the Golden Age is an entertaining novel, if not overly inventive. Readers of Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps, Soon I will be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Masked edited by Lou Anders, or George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series will enjoy this novel, as will any paranormal urban fantasy readers of Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, or Ilona Andrews wanting stories of similar themes but dissimilar content.