Tor, 2011, 304 pages
Can an accountant defeat a supervillain? Celia West, only daughter of the heroic leaders of the superpowered Olympiad, has spent the past few years estranged from her parents and their high-powered lifestyle. She’s had enough of masks and heroics, and wants only to live her own quiet life out from under the shadow of West Plaza and her rich and famous parents.
Then she is called into her boss’ office and told that as the city’s top forensic accountant, Celia is the best chance the prosecution has to catch notorious supervillain the Destructor for tax fraud. In the course of the trial, Celia’s troubled past comes to light and family secrets are revealed as the rift between Celia and her parents grows deeper. Cut off from friends and family, Celia must come to terms with the fact that she might just be Commerce City’s only hope.
This all-new and moving story of love, family, and sacrifice is an homage to Golden Age comics that no fan will want to miss.
Superhero novels are so very hit or miss. Things that work in comic books don't always work in prose form, and even the most well-written superhero stories require more willing suspension of disbelief from the reader than the average science fiction or fantasy novel. Vampires are easier to buy than people with godlike powers deciding the most fulfilling use of them is to put on tights and concoct elaborate schemes to steal rare museum artifacts, or go looking for muggers, in a world where the laws of physics are more like mild suggestions. Soon I Will Be Invincible and The Secret World Chronicles both entertained me, but did nothing that wouldn't have worked better in a comic book. The last really great superhero books I read were the Wild Cards novels back in the early days of the series before it went totally grimdark and splatterporn.
Carrie Vaughn writes a very earnest novel in the tradition of Silver Age comic books. Everything is played straight: the millionaire socialites who put on costumes to fight crime, the cackling eeeeevil supervillain whose awful schemes of terrible badness sound like something a vengeful 14-year-old would come up with, the four-color heroes with powers that get only the most token handwaving in the way of explanation. But if you accept this formula, then within it the characters in After the Golden Age pretty much act like real people, and the approach the story takes is different enough to make it worth a novel.
The premise of the book is quite clever and promising: an accountant versus a supervillain mastermind. Celia West is a normal, average person, much to the disappointment of her parents, Captain Olympus and Spark. Leaders of the Olympiad, a superhero team that has guarded Commerce City for over two decades, Spark and Captain Olympus assumed their daughter would also have superpowers, and couldn't hide their disappointment when she remained powerless. Celia was just an ordinary girl whose greatest accomplishment was taking second place in a swim meet.
Now, she is 24, living on her own and trying to pretend she's not the daughter of the city's two most famous superheroes. She's a forensic accountant (when's the last time you read a book in which a forensic accountant was the protagonist?) and when her parents' greatest enemy, the Destructor, is brought to trial for tax fraud, the DA wants her on the prosecution team, supposedly because of her "unique" perspective.
Everyone knows that Celia was once kidnapped by the Destructor. It turns out that poor Celia, as a rebellious, screwed-up teenager out to aggravate her parents in the worst way, went back to the Destructor a year later to volunteer to be his henchwoman. She spent a few weeks as the supervillain's bored pet before her parents rescued her, got her cleared of any criminal charges, and used their influence to have the record sealed.
Now, years later, this sealed record is brought to light and Celia's life is blown open just as she is facing the Destructor on the witness stand.
The most unrealistic element for me was not the powers, but the world's reaction to Celia's scandalous past. Okay, finding out that an upstanding accountant and daughter of the city's greatest heroes spent a few weeks as an angsty seventeen-year-old working for a supervillain would probably shock people, but Celia instantly becomes a pariah to everyone in the city. Even her friends turn their backs on her. Seriously, this is eight years later and she's obviously led a straight-arrow life ever since. Everyone else in the book must have led unblemished lives to have no understanding that teenagers can act like real shits and do stupid things that they regret later. The judgmental, unforgiving attitude of everyone around her stretched plausibility to me. Part of this was supposed to be that she worked for the Destructor, who's so very bad, except we never really get much indication of what makes the Destructor the worst supervillain since Hitler. He's an old man who plans acts of destruction and chaos, but there isn't much mention of death. We are probably meant to assume that he's killed a few people over the course of his long evil career, but this is never explicitly mentioned, and without a horrific body count and weeping families of the victims to underscore the point that he's supposed to be really, really evil, the Destructor just seems like a spiteful old man who had nothing better to do with his life than play cat and mouse games with superheroes.
After the Golden Age is ultimately a family drama about a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. Celia has super high-achieving parents and she feels nothing she does will ever be good enough for them; meanwhile, she is struggling with trying to be independent while knowing that she grew up enormously privileged and can walk right back into that privileged environment any time she wants. This is a story that doesn't require superheroes; the superpowers just add some flash and color.
As much as I enjoyed the first part of the story, I felt it faltered toward the end. Everything followed very predictable lines, and even Vaughn trying to hang a lampshade on some of the tropes, like the evil mastermind taunting the helpless heroine with a speech in which he reveals his grand plan, didn't overcome my "Yeah, yeah, saw that coming, seen it before" reaction. The denouement, in particular, had the feeling of a hasty wrap-up now that all the good stuff was over.
I also found the worldbuilding to be perfectly consistent with the comic books this book is riffing off of: that it is to say, completely lacking in depth. After the Golden Age is completely centered on Commerce City, only Commerce City superheroes and supervillains are mentioned, and one gets the impression that everyone lives their entire lives in Commerce City and the rest of the world basically doesn't exist.
I enjoyed this book more than I did Vaughn's werewolf paranormal romance, but I had the same problem with both: Vaughn is an extremely adequate writer. There is no sizzle or pop in her writing or her characters. I've given her two shots now, and I have a short story collection of hers to try and I've seen several other books of hers that interest me, but they've been pushed way back on my TBR queue. I don't foresee adding her to my go-to list of authors when I want to be guaranteed of something wonderful.
Verdict: This is a fine, fun, somewhat cliched superhero story with a very non-superheroic protagonist. After the Golden Age is enough like the comic books Vaughn is paying homage to that comic book fans should enjoy it, but ordinary Celia West and her romantic and family dramas, which really drive the story, make it perfectly accessible to genre fans who don't have a closet full of long cardboard boxes stuffed full of mylar bags (>..>). I can't give it a rousing recommendation as it's a book that I liked but did not love, but if you really like superheroes or Carrie Vaughn, you should find it worth reading.
Also by Carrie Vaughn: My review of Kitty and the Midnight Hour.