Review: Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

(Please bear with me as I try to nail down a format for my book reviews…)

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
Read: April 20 – April 23, 2012
Other Information:
Library book, paperback, 341 pages, read for book club
My Rating: 4 stars (really liked it)

Book Blurb:  There is no pity in Santa Olivia. And no escape. In this isolated military buffer zone between Mexico and the U.S., the citizens of Santa Olivia are virtually powerless. Then an unlikely heroine is born. She is the daughter of a man genetically manipulated by the government to be a weapon. A “Wolf-Man”, he was engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, stamina, and senses, as well as a total lack of fear. Named for her vanished father, Loup Garron has inherited his gifts.

Frustrated by the injustices visited upon her friends and neighbours by the military occupiers, Loup is determined to avenge her community. Aided by a handful of her fellow orphans, Loup takes on the guise of their patron saint, Santa Olivia, and sets out to deliver vigilante justice – aware that if she is caught, she could lose her freedom… and possibly her life.

My Opinion: First off, the book blurb is a little misleading in my honest opinion. This is, in no way, a werewolf book. I repeat: THIS IS NOT A WEREWOLF BOOK. At no point does Loup (pronounced Lou) sprout fangs and go chasing bad guys. (Or sparkly vampires.) So do not get your hopes up about this being a werewolf book. It isn’t. Are we clear? OK. Moving on, then.

This also, for me, wasn’t a superhero book. Was there some vigilante justice being taken? Yes. And Loup and her friends kicked ass at delivering it. Was Loup super-human? Yes. In a scientific way. But while the book blurb claims she was fed up with the injustices, I missed that memo. There was an injustice visited upon one of the orphans, which started it all, and then it kind of snowballed. But we never really get that look into Loup’s head that says “I want to be a superhero”. And if I had to pick one thing to drive her, it wouldn’t be frustration, it would be grief.

The worldbuilding was vague. I am still not entirely sure why Santa Olivia was isolated the way it was, and why the residents didn’t just leave at the start of the issues. They were offered the chance. We are also missing a definitive timeframe. The technology seems to indicate sometime recent. But the views of the town (abortion is outlawed, soldiers are not permitted to wed residents, etc.) seem archaic.

There are some authors I would sing the praises of all day long for their ability to craft words into amazing… things. Jacqueline Carey is not one of them. Her words don’t sing or hum or vibrate or anything. They don’t get stuck in your head. I was looking for memorable quotes to put in this review, but I couldn’t find anything. However, Carey is a good storyteller. The story read very easily and I felt connected to the characters. There is a fair bit of profanity, though. And sex. And gratuitous use of the word “baby”.

Quick aside: every time I saw Loup Garron or loup-garou, all I could think of was Lou Gehrig. It was an association I couldn’t turn off. N.B. for aspiring writers (myself included) to be aware of the connections your names may make.

I like the characters. I like the people at the church who are not really nuns or priests, but they still do what they can to help the little town. Miguel f*cking Garza. He was sleazy and caring in the right measure. I like Loup. I like that even though she has these “super powers” she also has limits. And I really like the fearless aspect. I wish that Carey had explored that more. What would come from a total lack of fear? What would you feel differently about, or not feel at all? I kind of wish that Carey had taken a little more time with her though. We don’t get a real sense for what she looks like in the book. And the same can be said for a lot of the characters… not much time and not many words are spent on descriptions.

On relationships. I really liked how they were built in the book. I am not a fan of the whole “mate for life” concept, as I feel it is a bit of a cop out to forge a true connection between characters. But it wasn’t completely horrible. I like that Loup had many failed relationships before she found the right one. I loved her relationship with her brother, from the beginning to the end. And I love love LOVE that Carey is not afraid to explore “unusual” couplings (like lesbian couples, etc.). I say “unusual” in quotes because it is only unusual in literature. You don’t see many relationships that aren’t the standard straight setup. It is refreshing to break that mold. Love comes in all forms. Love is also imperfect, and that is something Carey doesn’t shy away from. Instead of a soft-focus romance where everything is lovey-dovey, she explores the moments of selfishness, the messy breakups, the moment when you are just completely unwilling to compromise. These are all things we see in the relationship between Loup and her lover.

Bottom Line: Overall, the story was moving and true. It read very easily and it features some unusual elements you don’t normally find in today’s literature. The worldbuilding was lacking, but the characters were well developed (flaws and all). The story leads very nicely into book two, which I will be reading in the future.