Title: Santa Olivia
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Urban/Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: May 2009
Paperback: 352 pages
Stand alone or series: A stand alone novel that can be read on its own, however a sequel is in the works.
Why did I read this book: Jacqueline Carey is one of my absolute favorite authors – her Kushiel’s Legacy books are among my all time favorite novels, period. So, when I heard that she would be extending her considerable writing talents to an urban fantasy type of novel – with the promise of her take on not only werewolves, but superhero comics! – I was foaming at the mouth.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Lushly written with rich and vivid characters, SANTA OLIVIA is Jacqueline Carey’s take on comic book superheroes and the classic werewolf myth.
Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. A fugitive “Wolf-Man” who had a love affair with a local woman, Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically-manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon. The “Wolf-Men” were engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, sensory capability, stamina, and a total lack of fear, and Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.
After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town.
Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.
In a not-so-distant future, a superflu pandemic sweeps through nations, rendering many sick or dead. During the ensuing crisis, ruthless leader El Segundo threatens and war is declared between the United States and Mexico. A buffer zone is constructed, insulating the States from the Mexican border – and towns like Santa Olivia, Texas learn that they are no longer a part of the country, but are reduced to no-nationality outposts in a US Army zone. Carmen Garron is one of the many displaced former citizens, living in Santa Olivia, working as a waitress. After her first true love, a soldier and fighter in the US Army, is killed and she gives birth to his son, Carmen resigns herself to raising her son and never loving again. One day, however, a strange man comes through the diner, and Carmen is instantly drawn to him. Martin, the drifter, is no ordinary man but one of the “Lost Boys” – young children whose genetics the government experimented on, creating wolf-human hybrids in the jungles of Haiti. Martin is stronger and faster than normal humans, but the defining characteristic of he and his brethren is the inability to feel fear. Though Martin believes that his kind are sterile, Carmen soon becomes pregnant – and though Martin and Carmen are deeply in love, Martin is forced to leave Santa Olivia forever, before Carmen gives birth. Before he leaves, Martin makes Tommy, Carmen’s first son, promise to take care of his baby sister or brother, and he makes Carmen promise that regardless of the child’s sex, she will name it Loup, for the loup garrou – the French name of their kind. Months later, Carmen gives birth to a baby girl – Loup Garron – who is every bit as strong, fast, and fearless as her father was.
The years pass, and Carmen succumbs to another wave of sickness that passes through the town, leaving Tommy and Loup alone in the world. While Tommy has always loved his baby sister and has taught her well, he cannot afford to feed and look out for her – and he dedicates himself to boxing, like his father before him. The Army General of the Santa Olivia outpost is a fight lover, and has promised any citizen a free ticket out of town and back into the United States if they can beat the Army champion in the ring. Tommy trains hard for his chance at the title fight, to save himself and Loup. In the meanwhile, Loup is sent to live at the town church, with a handful of other orphans. For the first time, Loup shares her secret abilities with others, and with her newfound friends, Loup becomes Santa Olivia in the flesh, serving justice on behalf of those who have no voice.
Santa Olivia is nothing like I expected it would be – it’s marketed as an urban fantasy-cum-superhero novel, but I don’t think that’s quite right. If anything, Santa Olivia is more Zorro than X-Men; more Julia Alvarez than Kelley Armstrong. This novel defies classification – it is a coming of age tale, a touching parable to the power of being different, a fight novel, and a love story. Santa Olivia is also a smartly written book with political undertones, taking elements of today’s culture and imagining ramifications gone awry: the actions of the armed forces stripping people of their rights, the creation of a false war in the name of national security, the permanent sealing of the border between the United States and Mexico to prevent illegal immigrants from seeping in.
Most importantly, as with with all of Ms. Carey’s books, Santa Olivia is a beautifully written book, its characters imbued with life, its prose smooth, flowing, captivating. From my first encounter with Ms. Carey in Kushiel’s Dart, I fell in love with her poetic, luscious writing, and Santa Olivia is no exception. For example:
It had been declared illegal for military personnel to wed denizens of Outpost.
“Why?” Carmen Garron asked her first soldier-lover…
“Because.” He stroked her warm flesh, her skin damp with sweat. His face looked a little naked without his glasses, but his gaze was sharp and earnest…”Everything that happens here is classified. We’re not allowed to talk about it. And you’re not allowed to leave.”
She looked at the top of his head as he bent to follow his hand with his lips. “What about the general’s offer? The boxing?”
He glanced up and laughed. “No one will ever win. And anyway, General Argyle’s a little crazy.”
“Okay,” Carmen said uncertainly.
Her lover peered at her. “So you understand?”
A little bird in her heart uttered a single warbling note and died. “Yes,” Carmen Garron said sadly to her first lover. “I understand.”
She was twenty years old, still in the first flush of youth, and he was her first love — her first true love. His name was Tom Almquist, and on nights when she was alone, Carmen whispered his name to herself like a prayer. Like her first lover, he was earnest; like her second, he was funny, although it was humor of a slow, careful kind. But he was different.
“I’ll marry you,” he whispered the time the condom broke, his lips pressed to her temple. “Don’t worry. Either way, I will.”
“You can’t!” Carmen whispered back.
His massive shoulders rose and fell. “Don’t care. I will.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I bet we catch El Segundo in six months’ time and all this will be over.”
It didn’t happen that way.
He would have kept his word if it had, because Tom Almquist was a determined young man, and when he found out that Carmen was pregnant for sure, it only made him more determined. He even talked to his commanding officer about Carmen. But two weeks after they knew for certain, Tom Almquist was killed when his squadron was sent to investigate a report that El Segundo’s men had breached the southern wall some twenty miles away. There was a breach, but it was a small one. And there was a booby trap and a bomb.
The bird in Carmen Garron’s heart went silent for a long time.
In the span of two pages, with periphery characters no less, Ms. Carey managed to draw me in, make me fall in love, and break my heart. Such is Santa Olivia.
In addition to being impeccably written, Ms. Carey’s characters are layered and completely, wholly real. Readers are privy to the thoughts and feelings of Loup (pronounced “Lou”), the protagonist. Loup is different, an outsider to her very core. Her entire life she has had to be careful – not to show her extraordinary strength and speed, so as not to hurt herself or others. Even when she hits puberty and grows into a pretty young woman, her friends and boyfriends avoid her touch, telling her she feels weird, that her kisses aren’t right, her body wrong. Though Loup cannot feel fear, she experiences every other range of human emotion – especially anger, love and heartbreak. When Loup is finally able to be herself, shedding her facade of normality – much like Superman sheds his Clark Kent – she is brilliant. I was riveted by Loup’s story, hoping and pulling for her the whole way.
Santa Olivia‘s other characters are similarly fleshed out and well-written; all of the different orphans have distinct personalities, from the quiet, understanding Mack to the flirtatious, passionate Pilar. My other favorite characters, however, would have to be Miguel Garza and Coach Roberts. Miguel begins in the story as almost a villain character, but grows and changes as the story progresses, especially as he and Loup become sparring partners and odd friends. Coach Roberts is all Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby – grizzly, determined, and believing in his fighter, young Loup. On that note, Santa Olivia also happens to be – against all expectation – a boxing book, much to my delight as a pretty big fight fan. Ms. Carey’s scenes in the gym, as Loup trains, and in the ring are testament to a love of the sweet science.
At its heart, Santa Olivia is a story – and one that is near impossible to put down. The characters are beautifully written, but it is the plot and the setting that drives this novel. The town of Santa Olivia, or Outpost 12 as named by the military, is a Texas border town, with strong Mexican roots. The people are disillusioned, hopeless in the face of their military watchguards. Though Catholicism is strong in the roots of the town, their patron saint, Santa Olivia, seems to have forgotten about her children. The oppression and the hunger of the people for something to believe in is palpable throughout the book, and it’s a stroke of brilliance when the orphans of the church decide to take justice in their own hands. In this sense, Santa Olivia is a mantle, breathed into life because of the needs of the people, and kept alive through the faith of the people – much like Zorro.
Finally, there is the Urban Fantasy element to the book. Ms. Carey takes a modern, more realistic version of the werewolf myth – less supernatural magic, and more grounded in something far more sinister. Instead of shapeshifting, Loup and her kind are genetically engineered experiments; strong, fast, and fearless. They are wolf in name, but not in practice – a twist that I welcomed. This is not your run of the mill urban fantasy with a leather-clad chick and a bad attitude.
No, Santa Olivia has heart. And I absolutely loved it.
Notable Quotes/Parts: First, there is Loup’s appearance as Santa Olivia:
It was a way to feel alive.
And there was the camaraderie of the Santitos — a clan, a pack. Jamie and Jane lending their wits, Mack his leadership. Everyone itching in, everyone doing their part. Giving people hope, giving people something to believe in. It felt good. It felt like the way things were supposed to feel…
“Fuck,” Loup muttered to herself, standing at the crossroads of Fisher and Juarez, the white kerchief tied neatly over her unruly hair, a dark kerchief masking the lower half of her face. Below, a pretty blue dress, beneath which Loup was sweating through a second set of clothes. She rolled the boulder into the center of the road from where Mack and Diego had left it, hauling it in a garbage cart under cover of darkness. Across from the apartment building was an abandoned gas station. An elderly woman sold tomatoes in front of the empty pumps. She looked curiously at Loup as she set up her wares.
The jeep came, kicking up a trail of dust.
Everything else went away.
The driver saw her and the boulder and braked. The jeep didn’t have a top. The driver stood up, shading his eyes. Beneath the rim of his helmet, he had dense eyebrows. The dimple in his chin was so deep it was in shadow.
“The fuck, bitch?” he called. “Move!”
“I bear a message from Santa Olivia,” Loup called, speaking from the script Jaime and Jane had written for her. “You destroyed an old man’s last happiness. Santa Olivia bids you repent of your thoughtless cruelty!”
The driver leaned on the horn. “Move your ass, you freakshow!”
Loup hoisted the boulder, positioning it on her right shoulder. There were words written on it in white paint Mack had found in a shed.
SANTA OLIVIA DOES NOT FORGET.
The soldiers in the jeep gaped. She summoned a surge of strength and threw it hard. There was about a year of space between them. She didn’t want to hear the crash, the tinkle of glass splintering in a spiderweb, the soldiers’ surprised curses. She just fled.
Past the tenement, down the alley.
God, it felt good. Tommy had never let her go. Loup ran faster than she’d ever run in her life, faster than she’d run on the rooftops, faster than anyone had ever run.
Although, my favorite scene had to be that last boxing match; it’s Rocky-esque. I was holding my breath as Loup made her way into the ring.
The crowd quieted, uncertain, seeing only a smaller-than-expected figure in a vivid blue robe. She pushed back her hood. It could have been a loose white kerchief slipping from her hair.
The soldiers in the bleachers erupted in howls of laughter, hoots of derision, and catcalls of disappointment. But among the Outposters in the square, there was a hush as her name went around, its meaning dawning on them…
And on the heels of that revelation, a second significance dawned. A girl in a blue dress; a girl in a blue robe.
“Santa Olivia!” someone shouted.
Others took up the cry. “Santa Olivia! Santa Olivia!”
Verdict: Santa Olivia is a beautiful, heartfelt book, told by a master storyteller. I loved every second of it. Highly recommended.
Rating: 8 Excellent
GIVEAWAY DETAILS: We are giving away five copies of Santa Olivia!
The contest is open only to residents of the US and Canada. To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment here. The contest will run until Saturday, May 30 at midnight (PST). We will announce the five lucky winners at noon on Sunday in our weekly stash. Good luck!