Superhero parents are the worst, in "After the Golden Age"

Carrie Vaughn's new novel, After the Golden Age, is a surprisingly moving story about the impossibility of living up to your parents' expectations, and how tough it can be to love them — even if they are superheroes.

Celia West seems normal enough. She's a forensic accountant. She takes the bus. And she has a somewhat rocky relationship with her parents, who are obscenely wealthy superheroes. Celia's worked hard to carve out a life of her own but finds herself dragged right back into their world when their arch-nemesis is brought to trial.

Spoilers ahead!

Vaughn's superheroes are unabashed and not especially conflicted about their powers, or their duty to help society. They're a bunch of individuals using their unique talents in the service of Commerce City, like a bright student pursuing teaching or a brave athlete signing on for the Fire Department. They're not ironic or wracked with guilt. Take Captain Olympus and Spark, two of the city's beloved, self-appointed protectors. As Warren and Suzanne West, they're also the city's scandalously wealthy social creme de la creme.

Great life, right? Well, it stinks for their only daughter, Celia, whose most impressive childhood achievement is a silver medal at a swim meet. Her home life is less than ideal, with her parents dashing off at all hours to save the city. So the kid feels like an afterthought, and as she grows up, her desire for her parents' attention morphs into anger and resentment. Her teenage rebellion is therefore not limited to an ill-advised tattoo or a stint with a punk rock band. As we discover shortly into the novel, she actually sought out and joined forces with Destructor, her parents' villainous arch-nemesis. It's just a temporary blip, a moment of adolescent insanity — but eight years later, she's still dealing with the consequences. And when the Destructor goes to trial, the whole thing blows wide open and makes a total hash of Celia's life.

On paper, Celia might sound like a bit of an over-privileged brat. But as written, she's tough and, most importantly, very likable. Vaughn has crafted a vivid, deeply conflicted but utterly sympathetic individual. She's also a complete smart-ass, which is particularly fun. For example, the first time we see her kidnapped, she makes the following assessment of her captors: "He really was stupid enough to tell her his plan. Amateurs." Everything is filtered through her perspective, to the point the novel reads like a first-person narrative. Consequently, every other character is a bit less sharply drawn, but not to the point of seeming two-dimensional.

The pacing is incredibly quick. While we toggle back and forth between the present and Celia's memories, the book's actual events take place over the course of a few weeks, at most. Every few pages Celia's being kidnapped or fighting with her parents or unraveling some mystery using her mad accounting skills. This reviewer was up until 2AM on a work night finishing the book, because it's pretty tough to put down. The action scenes aren't too shabby, either. There's a set piece involving a bus hijacking that's particularly nice.

But at its heart, After the Golden Age is a somewhat angsty family drama, and that's where it's most affecting. Captain Olympus, when he loses his temper, punches through walls, tables, anything else that's convenient to destroy. That's very impressive when trying to intimidate bad guys, but it's less great as a parenting strategy. Vaughn doesn't soft-pedal Warren West's failings as a parent: He's fundamentally a decent man, but he wanted a mutant child able to carry on his super-powered legacy, and Celia can't live up to those expectations. To make matters worse, she inherited his mule-stubborn personality and isn't any more capable of building emotional bridges. It's excruciating to watch and very, very true. If that's not your cup of tea, you should pass on this one. But if you're moved by the idea of Celia's rocky relationship with her dad, After the Golden Age should be right up your alley.