After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
Carrie Vaughn has a lot of admirers already for her smart and sassy (and wonderfully lacking in cliché) Kitty Norville series, which follows the adventures of a popular Denver werewolf and DJ. She branched out a bit last year with her King Arthur-Greek gods-dystopian mash-up Discord's Apple and now sends a wink in the direction of classic superhero comic books with After the Golden Age. The fact that I share her interest in werewolves, King Arthur, Greek gods, and comic books does not mean that I come to Vaughn as an unabashed fan. I do, however, enjoy her novels for the way that she embraces story and gives her readers a really good time. It's nice to read about characters who do something other than angst-ridden whining and a lot of long soulful glances. Vaughn is a doer, and she likes her characters the same way.
In the opening pages of After the Golden Age, we meet twentysomething Celia West whose parents are the leaders of the four-member Olympiad, heroes of the city and pretty much Reed Richards and Sue Storm with different powers. (Dad is basically Superman; Mom is more Johnny Storm.) Celia, alas, has no powers and has thus spent her life not really a member of the crew while at the same time privy to everything they do. Her life took a major turn after she was kidnapped by the Olympiad's archenemy, the Destructor. The group's secret identities were subsequently revealed, and Celia soon found herself at the kidnapping whims of all sorts of criminal mastermind wannabes. She has gotten quite blasé about the whole capture-and-rescue thing, and constantly have to rely on the good guys to oversee her daily walk to work (as an accountant) has not exactly done a lot for her self esteem. Of course the real problem in her life is what happened in the years after that first disastrous kidnapping, something that has caused a permanent rift with her father and strained relations with both parents.
Vaughn's immediate wink to family drama quickly grounds After the Golden Age and keeps it much more Gilmore Girls than Batman. This focus on issues any young adult (or adult child of disappointed parents) can identify with goes a long way toward shifting the book from standard capes and villains to a much more nuanced coming-of-age narrative. What forces a lot of long simmering issues to the forefront is the indictment in the first chapter of the Destructor on tax evasion charges, with well deserved nods to the Al Capone case. Celia is asked to assist the prosecution as a forensic accountant, not because of her superior skills (she is barely out of college) but because of her family's bitter history with the villain and the positive publicity her inclusion will bring the case. She also learns the district attorney has taken a peek into her long-sealed juvenile file and believes she holds certain insight into the mind of the criminal. The contents of that file will blow everything up during the trial and force the members of the Olympiad to face what happened to teenage Celia, and why, so many years before.
There are several other subplots running through the story, including one failed romance and another sweetly successful one. There is also a series of high profile capers taking place during the trial that are right out of the annals of the Penguin and Riddler and compel Celia to investigate. As she uncovers the vast conspiracy that surrounds the Destructor's origin and how it relates to the current spate of robberies, she is forced to ask a lot of hard questions about her own family's secrets and just what has gone into making Commerce City the home to some of the greatest heroes of all time. Plus there's her best friend who has a secret and the doorman to her parents' building who has a secret, and, well, it is a superhero novel after all, so basically no one is who he seems, but that's okay because it is all wonderfully sorted out in the end.
Several reviews of After the Golden Age allude to its homage to comics and the fine way Vaughn weaves classic characters and situations into her plot, and all of that is true and certainly welcome. But for me, this book was always an epic coming-of-age novel that uses a unique storyline to accomplish a classic goal. It's about a girl who grew up in a family where she felt she did not fit in. It's about the choices she makes (both good and bad) to break free from the future they chose for her and it's about the moments when each of them realizes that while you might not have the family you expected, you do have the one you need. In particular there is a moment when Celia wishes she could speak to her seventeen-year-old self and turn back the clock, undoing one bad decision:
A mistake like this, you'll never get away with it. It will mark you, brand you... Don't you know what this is going to do to your future?
The trouble was, the seventeen-year-old always replied, What makes you think I have a future?
The passage proves After the Golden Age is really about what it means to be a misunderstood kid, and what a kid has to do later to come to terms with those teenage mistakes and find the future she always wanted. That's why After the Golden Age succeeds so much and why yet again, Vaughn has surprised and delighted her fans.
After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn