After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn
I’ve previously encountered Carrie Vaughn in shorter form, the example most relevant to this review being “Rooftops” which appeared in Songs of Love and Death. I’d enjoyed the writing style so was interested to see how she would stand up at novel length.
After the Golden Age is a book written about the perils of parenting. Even parents of “ordinary” ability can have such high hopes and expectations for their children that they wreck the childhood experience. We’ve all seen parents pressuring their children to excel. It doesn’t matter whether it’s grooming for academic achievement, sporting invincibility or, even, success as the next “idol” singer, dancer or other performer. The reality is grinding additional tuition or training with a stick and carrot system of encouragement. For those children who do show talent, the support they receive can maximise their inherent abilities. But no matter how much parents drive their children, nothing can make a genius out of a sow’s ear (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor). If the children “don’t got it”, all the parents do is make a Hell for the children to go through.
This is likely to be worse if the parents have demonstrated excellence in their own fields. Suppose two great tennis stars marry, but their child proves incapable of hitting any size of ball with any type of sporting weapon. The sporting community and fans will shake their collective heads and wonder what went wrong. After all, selective breeding based on pedigree works for racehorses. So they mutter among themselves. Here comes the child of X and Y. How come (s)he can’t play tennis? When the child sees the disappointment in the majority’s eyes, this makes the failure all the worse. How can any child develop self-respect when none around her actually respect her? Children are cruel enough to each other without the adults joining in as well. Within the family, she may want to love her parents but, if she cannot remember a time when her father actually appreciated anything she did. . . if her best was only second place in a local swimming competition. . . why should she even bother to try?
So meet Celia West who has the misfortune to be the only daughter of two superheroes, and born without any super abilities. As would any teen, she rebels. She joins the team of the supervillain but, ironically, because she has no useful talents, he only keeps her around to annoy her parents. Thus she’s saved from true criminality by her own incompetence. Recovering from this terrible humiliation, she leaves home and, after one major brush with superpowers, eventually qualifies as a forensic accountant. Fortunately, she’s developed an interest in detail. Just as in real life, she can tend to see through masks, so she can see through the surface reality of figures and facts on a page to the greater reality beneath. Although the DA’s motives are less than pure when he asks her to work on a case, she’s soon involved in a major prosecution. The plan is to treat the supervillain as Capone and jail him for tax evasion. Notice the obvious conflict of interest. Having been this villain’s henchwoman, there will be questions asked as to her motives. Perhaps she wants revenge. Perhaps she will pull her punches because she still loves the villain — yes, there will be those who believe she and the villain slept together.
So off we go on a caper where masked superheroes of various hues fight for truth, justice and whatever way works best when someone’s shooting at you. When Celia West’s name is blackened following her appearance as a witness in the trial, she has no choice. She becomes the unmasked vigilante crime-fighting ex-accountant — well, she gets to keep her qualification, but you get the idea. This is a marvellous romp, taking the basic premise and expanding it with an affectionate eye for credible detail. So often an author starts off with a good idea and then goes a little wild, allowing imagination to stray too far from the world we all know. Carrie Vaughn carefully avoids the trap and, although we’re dealing with people, some of whom have superhuman abilities, the real focus of interest is on the performance of those who are merely humans doing their best.
I read After the Golden Age in a single sitting. The writing style is simple and elegant, irresistibly drawing you through to the end of what is, by any standards, a particularly pleasing plot. More generally, and insofar as I am competent to make the recommendation, this is the book every parent should read before starting on Doctor Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Too often, parents are disheartened by their children’s performance and fail to give them the affection and encouragement they need to make the best of what abilities they have. All individuals should be valued for who they are, not judged according to what others think they should be. This is not to say After the Golden Age is a message book, full of worthy tips. Far from it. Because it involves superpowers, it’s enjoyable science fiction if not fantasy. But there are life lessons to be drawn from every source, no matter how unlikely.
For a review of the sequel, see Dreams of the Golden Age.
This book was sent to me for review.