Sunday, March 2, 2014

After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

After the Golden Age
by Carrie Vaughn
Tor Fantasy, 2012
342 pages

Sometimes a girl just needs to shelf graze. I have an enormous TBR list; it's well over 1000 items now. I have series I'm half-finished and books I have to read for book club. But every once in a while I indulge in the luxury of browsing library shelves and seeing what sticks out, picking it up based on whatever information can be gleaned from the cover and the synopsis. One can find the most wonderful things that way.

Superheroes. Superhero comics. I have always more loved the idea of them than I've actually loved the comics themselves; though a big graphic novel fan, I've always found traditional superhero comics to be hard to follow, art-wise, and they are often darker, grimmer, grittier than I generally enjoy. But traditional superhero stories and tropes? I love them. So what is essentially a superhero comic in prose, sans visual art, is like candy. If it's a little light on the grit, so much the better. Add in one of my favourite concepts - exploring the superheroes from the perspective of the mundane folks around them - and I had trouble not thinking about this book all the time. I was stuck right in it. I revelled in being stuck. And, lest I over-think this in the following paragraphs, let me please make the point that not only was this book interesting in concept, it was so, so much fun.

The book follows the story of Celia West, only child to the greatest superheroes Commerce City has ever known. Celia has no superpowers herself, a grave disappointment to her parents, her father especially. Growing up she has struggled to find her place, to distinguish herself in her own right, to find her way out from behind her parents' shadows. Now a forensic accountant with a prestigious firm, she is assisting the DA put her parents' greatest enemy, the Destructor, behind bars by following his financial trail - much to her father's chagrin.

Okay, yes, the superheroes' daughter is a forensic accountant, which was probably my first big trigger to pick this up. I love mysteries, and I loved that Celia's job was so unglamourous compared to her superhero background (so does she.) Celia has had a rough go of it; in addition to being a major disappointment to her parents, she's a favourite target of the criminal elements of Commerce City, because of her known connection to the Olympiad, the organization of four superheroes who look after the city.

And now we have come to the point where the superheroes are middle-aged. Their nemesis is behind bars, their secret identities are blown. They still do their work, and they do it well, but they are past their prime. And some people know that, and they're about to take advantage of it. And Celia is going to get caught right in the middle, despite the fact that she has made it her life's work to stay as far out of her parents' way as she possibly can.

So, there are some problems with this book, and I'll get them out of the way first. I should say, too, that any problems I noted are generally the same sorts of problems that superhero comics enjoy: plot holes (how can the DA possibly ignore the major conflict of interest he introduces when he asks for Celia to work on the prosecution team?) and larger-than-life characters that seem a little static, a little rote (um, you know: superheroes.) I am pretty sure this isn't a coincidence. This book is nothing if not a loving homage to the superhero comic. It's not beyond investigating the tropes and poking a bit of fun, but overall it's going with the flow, and so what would probably lose me in a different kind of book only made me shake my head here.

I have been trying to figure out what, beyond the concept, kept me so very, very engaged, and I think it must have been Celia herself. The characters around her - even the potential love interests (less so for one than the other, certainly), and the friends - are comic book characters, perfectly groomed and inscrutable, fully committed to their missions and not terribly emotionally deep. Even Celia's father, Warren West aka Captain Olympus is very much a comic book character, and in Warren's case I think the intention was to get a little bit deeper.

The writing is pretty standard, by which I mean it fades into the background, which is much harder than it appears. Occasionally repetition was a bit of an issue; observations of certain facts or character traits were made more than strictly necessary, which occasionally felt like being foreblugeoned. Flashbacks are present, so if you're not a fan, watch out. They actually had less of an impact on the pacing than I usually find flashbacks do, though I'm not sure they did exactly what they were supposed to do, which was (I think) deepen my understanding of and sympathy for Celia. I liked her just fine without the flashbacks, and still didn't exactly buy her stupid mistake, even when it was shown and not just told. Which, maybe, was part of the point? That it was as inexplicable and uncomfortable to her, looking back, as it was to everyone else around her?

This is a gentle, fond examination of superhero tropes and ideas. The superhuman past his prime. Superhero as concerned parent unable to handle a rebellious teenager. Vigilante justice. Superhero-police relations. Hero worship. Celebrity media culture. What Vaughn does, to good effect, is to take the superhero story at face value: the city is called Commerce City, the superheroes have names like The Bullet and Captain Olympus and Typhoon, all without apparent cynicism or irony. They have a secret command post, various outlandish vehicles. Looked at through the eyes of a mundane observer, even one entirely used to the spectacle, this all takes on a faintly ridiculous cast, but it's taken seriously. Vaughn takes some of this to its logical conclusion, too: what would it really be like to have telepathic powers? What would happen if a superhero was caught out after curfew and shot at? How would it feel to grow up knowing you could never, ever, even in your wildest dreams, follow in your father's footsteps? How would a superhero act at the dinner table over delivered pizza? (The answer: not well.) What I mean is, I wouldn't call this a parody or a satire, nor a tribute, exactly. It's something in between. It's a fine line to walk, I think, and it's so well done.

Highly, highly readable, enormously entertaining, funny, sweet, occasionally moving, and sometimes thought-provoking. Recommended if you're a fan of fantasy or a fan of comics. There is a follow-up, Dreams of the Golden Age, which has just been released, and which I already have on hold. I loved living in this world and I'm really looking forward to going back.

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