Cameron's Reviews > Santa Olivia

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
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Jun 01, 09

bookshelves: urban-fantasy
Read in May, 2009

One thing that amazes me with this novel is Carey's scope as a writer. With the Kushiel sextuplet she was graceful and highly engaging with her intelligent main characters, spinning sentences like colorful and erotic thread; with this book, her main character is more physical and so her writing takes on a greater physicality and brevity. Parsed phrases create intense moments, highlighting the fearless nature of her heroine, the simplicity that she brings to bear in her worldview.

Unlike the shadowy origins that much of urban fantasy uses as a suspenseful trope, Carey makes us witness to the events leading to the birth of the girl who will enliven the myth of Santa Olivia. Occurring in a slightly off future Texas where the threat of rampant disease in Mexico has caused the U.S. to seal the border claiming rebel Mexican forces are threatening to overrun the States, focusing in on the town once known as Santa Olivia but now converted into Outpost - disappearing from public awareness as the entire town becomes locked down - Carey introduces us to a genetic experiment of human scale: men who were bred to be stronger and faster and more resilient.

It is one such man, fleeing his U.S. captors, who succumbs to a tryst with a local girl, causing the improbable pregnancy that leads to the birth of Loup (pronounced Lou, French for wolf, told with a somber yet tongue-in-cheek werewolf reference and not the overripe gravitas crappy romance novels would give to the name).

Born gifted with the same genetic alterations engineered into her father, life is rather challenging for Lou. But then, life pretty much sucks for all the residents of Santa Olivia cum Outpost. Not allowed to leave by the U.S. Army, able only to serve as the working class servants of the soldiers, stuck between warring factions of Outpost gangs trying to scratch the crumbs the Army leaves, the scene becomes ripe for an avenging angel – Zorro style. Carey could have thrust her novel into the trenches of high action/adventure with swashbuckling and ass kicking, creating a comic book heroine in Loup. She does not. There is plenty of action, but Carey does not allow her action sequences to spin out of proportion to the story, despite Loup’s heightened abilities. In my opinion, this makes the story more realistic and rich, for the true heroic aspects arise in the only sport allowed the town of Outpost: boxing.

Loup’s older brother Thomas grows to be the heroic ideal of the town, training wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. Loup will get her turn in the spotlight, but the trajectory that Carey takes her on – growing and learning amongst orphans under the protection of the unorthodox Church, shadowing her older brother in the local boxing gym, performing “miracles” more akin to pranks as the original namesake child saint of the town, butting heads with the local bad boy tough who could easily be a stereotypical gang leader but in Carey’s hands becomes much more – plays alongside her brother’s development, benefiting from the comparison and example she finds, fleshing out the hopes and dreams of a small town forgotten and trapped.

Santa Olivia, as a novel of urban fantasy, pushes through many of the boundaries reinforced by previous novels of the genre. Carey continues to expand her craft and seduce her readers into her worlds just slightly askew of our own, spinning characters of coarse fabric and fine patterns, threading sexuality into her tales with skillful aplomb, and interweaving literary merit with the excitement of the genre and a subtle social commentary. Punches are not pulled, pelvic thrusts fully expressed. Santa Olivia packs the wallop of her main character.
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