This week we devoured After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. This urban fantasy tale takes readers to Commerce City, where being the "normal" daughter of the band of superheroes that protects the citizens has put a giant target on Celia West's back.
Morgan: So I’m not proud of this but I admit it, I choose this book for its cover. That and because it is written by the amazing Carrie Vaughn. It was just icing on the cake when I read the back-cover copy and saw that this was about superheroes. I’ve loved these types of stories ever since I saw The Incredibles.
Whitney: I, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have picked this one off the shelf. It was the first Carrie Vaughn book I’ve read, but now I can’t wait to read more by her.
Morgan: This certainly is a departure for Ms. Vaughn. While her Kitty books have a bit more fighting action, I think any fan of hers will love this. Also, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the Batman movie franchise — regardless of their gender. (Although it maybe more to the taste of fans of the Tim Burton Batman rather than those of the Dark Knight version.) The book definitely has that “different” feel to it.
Whitney: And although it may not look like the kind of story that will keep a romance reader enthralled, it has an almost mainstream/fantasy vibe and a cross-genre appeal that guarantees it will get passed between friends!
Morgan: Agreed. I know I was hooked from the book's opening scene, Celia's kidnapping. What should have been a terrifying ordeal is made somewhat anti-climatic when we learn that Celia has been kidnapped before. A lot. She isn’t scared as much as she is upset that her life is being interrupted — so she starts bickering with her kidnappers, a pretty gutsy move.
Whitney: And what better introduction could there be for Celia West? This really worked for me because as the “powerless” child of two superheroes, she’s had to get used to being a target.
Morgan: She is a true victim of circumstance. Although I have to say she has a seriously immature attitude about the whole thing. There are tons of woe-is-me moments where she calls herself useless and expendable. Even though she is in her mid-twenties, she still has that teenage need to be considered important to others. (And not just be seen as a pawn or bait.)
Whitney: But it’s hard not to be sympathetic to her struggle as we see her be judged against the super standards that are the result having such powerful parents.
Morgan: Any other parent in the world would be proud of her. Celia put herself through college, got her MBA and CPA license. She has her own apartment and a good job and excellent taste in men. But when your father is the great Captain Olympus and your mother is Spark, these accomplishments don’t seem to mean a lot.
Whitney: Although in everyone else’s defense, the people closest to her are stopping dangerous criminals in their tracks and preserving the peace. I mean she was raised by two of Commerce City’s most famous superheroes and her family’s closest friends are Robbie Denton (aka The Bullet) and Arthur Mentis, an incredible telepath.
Morgan: Oh, I just loved these characters’ names. You’ve got the good guys like Typhoon, Breezeway, Earth Mother, Block Buster Senior and Block Buster Junior. And then the bad guys like Destructor, Plasma and the Strad Brothers.
Whitney: Totally agreed. I also really like Celia West’s name. I felt like it worked with the kind of Batman/Mr. Fantastic action that her dad had going on as Captain Olympus. Like of course he’d give his daughter a name that sounded regal but might be hard to live up to. (Dear Celias of the world, I don’t know how you do it!)
Morgan: After so many comic books have been adapted for movies and TV, it isn’t hard to imagine what a superhero named Mind-Masher looks like. Vaughn’s are what I consider classical superheroes, complete with masks and capes and everything. Take Celia’s mother:
“Suzanne West - Spark - was beautiful, marvelously svelte in her form-fitted skin suit, black with flame-colored accents. Her red hair swept thick and luxurious down her back.”
I’m not sure about you, but this is exactly what I want my superheroes to look like.
Whitney: I loved all of the superhero descriptions, but I can’t remember a single passage where Celia is ever described. This really worked for me because it kept me focused on the world through Celia’s eyes. And this was a phenomenal story to be in the front seat for.
Morgan: Descriptions of Celia’s looks are conspicuously absent — except when in reference to her parents — she has red hair like her mom and her father’s eye color. It was like she doesn’t have an identity of her own.
Whitney: I think she has an identity — one that she fought hard for. But she’s also very conscious of the fact that people have multiple identities, masks they wear literally and figuratively. There’s even a line about Celia’s parents that I feel really drove this home, “Sometimes Celia was sure the mundane sides of them were the disguise. That she was part of the disguise.” After the Golden Age is all about which faces the characters show to others, identity control and, for Celia, the parts of herself she does not even recognize until she is “called upon for greatness.”
Morgan: I like to think that, in her own way, Celia has always been great. After all, she is fighting crime. She might be a nondescript accountant, but she is taking down the bad guy. Just like they got Al Capone with tax evasion.
Whitney: It’s too bad that Captain Olympus can’t see that right from the start instead of being disappointed that she’s not fighting crime in a more overt way. But I don’t really blame him. It’s easier to be angry than it is afraid and I can only imagine how bleak things looks from his point of view. The world is scary enough if you are a parent, (I say, as though I’ve got kids) I can’t imagine how awful it must be to know that you didn’t pass on the super powers you have; to think that your child will always need saving because she doesn’t have the abilities that you do. What a horrible feeling.
Morgan: Also Captain Olympus doesn’t trust Celia. Not after her teenage rebellion when she joined Destructor on his quest to destroy the city. No one but Destructor believed that he would get away with it. So rather than being evil, Celia was actually just showing her independence.
Whitney: I think we see a lot of Captain Olympus’ feelings through Celia’s lens of self-doubt. But she did head to the dark side. And even though she didn’t think Destructor would actually blow up the city, no one else knew about her unshakable faith in her parents’ ability to stop him. So from the outside, it does look pretty bad.
Morgan: Now, years later, Celia is still paying for her mistake. Her parents still haven’t forgiven her and once it is public knowledge, no one else can forgive her either. (By the way, wasn’t it awesome how during the Destructor’s trial it comes out that Celia was "employed" by him as a henchman? Now there’s something to put on a resume.)
Whitney: It kind of makes you wonder what happens to the henchmen who do get to retire, or who opt for a career change. I mean, who do you go to for a reference?
Morgan: Not your ex-boss, boyfriend or best friend, if you’re Celia. They’re all off the list. One because he’s insane and the other two because they aren’t able to forgive her when the truth comes out ...
Whitney: I feel like this is one of those cases where you have to forgive yourself in order for others to forgive you. And then once you’ve done that, other people who still hold on to resentment end up looking … foolish, almost.
Morgan: I don’t think it is a matter of forgiving herself. There was really nothing to forgive. She got angry and ran away from home. Sure she ended up in a supervillain’s lair, but it's not like she did any harm. And let's not forget that she was 17 at the time.
Whitney: After she publicly faces her teenage rebellion, I was frustrated by her friends’ continued resentment. They are her ordinary boyfriend and super-power-enhanced best friend, if anyone should be able to forgive Celia and see that she’s not the angry teen she was, it should be them.
Morgan: It’s just that good and evil are so black and white in this world. You’ve got the superhero good guys that act as “independent law-enforcement agents” (aka vigilantes with special gifts). The cops working on the side of justice. And then opposed to them are the bad guys that wreck havoc — or at least attempt to — just because. There is no middle ground.
Whitney: I think that in the beginning things seem black and white, good and evil, destroy and keep safe, but by the time that you get to the end of the book things look a lot more like shades of gray. From Captain Olympus to the evil Strad Brothers, motivations and ultimate outcomes unfold much less clearly than I expected they would at the end of the first chapter.
Morgan: For all the talk of supervillians, it was interesting that the Commerce City “crime wave” consisted of a few botched kidnapping attempts on Celia and a group of thieves stealing musical instruments and expensive Koi fish.
Whitney: Well, the police force was there to keep the city safe from most things. And those priceless valuables that disappeared were all tied into Celia’s story.
Morgan: Regardless of Celia’s involvement, Captain Olympus sees it as his duty to catch the wrongdoers, not matter the crime. Think about all the dinners that he missed, the references Celia made to him always being “at work.”
Whitney: He’s definitely a workaholic. But again, to know that you have this incredible power, it’s a heavy burden even before you learn that your child doesn’t have the same abilities. I think you’d do everything you could to make sure that your child was safe.
Morgan: It was the relationship between father and daughter more than anything else that really gave this story heart. The book is so cute and charming that the ending came out of nowhere for me. It was so surprisingly emotional.
Whitney: I am a super softie for stories about family, and After the Golden Age is definitely about that. Although, you know I’ve been trying to put my finger on it and I think I’ve finally got it. The story reads like a graphic-less graphic novel. Or like a book adaptation of a movie. The language is pretty sparse, the action quick, and the even the romance has a “Will they? Won’t they? There they go!” feeling to it. Vaughn has created a really smooth, clean story. And I could say tons more about this story but it’s got such interesting developments that I don’t want to spoil any of Vaughn’s (pardon the pun) super story.
Next week for something completely different, we will be Dishing about Margaret Mallory's Scotland-set historical romance, The Guardian, which is in stores now — so feel free to pick up your own copy and read along!