Review of Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
by Jacqueline Carey
It was only three weeks into knitting my SEKRIT PROJECT that has left me high and dry for reading time that I remembered audiobooks are a thing … good job, Ben.
Santa Olivia is some dystopian SF from Jacqueline Carey, whom I better know from Kushiel’s Dart and its umpteen spin-offs, as well as the Agent of Hel urban fantasy series (damn, I still crave more of those). In this novel, Carey turns her hand towards more of a science-fictional bent, as the explanations and mechanics behind the transhuman elements are explained away with science. At the end of the day, though, this is basically a story about proving oneself, seeking atonement and revenge, and pursuing freedom at all costs.
The book opens with a quick crash course depiction of the early days of Outpost 12, the former town of Santa Olivia in Texas, before the US builds a wall between it and Mexico (wait, this sounds prophetic) and cuts off Santa Olivia from the rest of the country, declaring any civilian who stays behind an American citizen no longer. The denizens of Outpost 12 muddle through their lives in what is essentially a laissez-faire, Western-type town vibe, with occasional supplies from the military detachment that patrols that section of the wall. We learn how our protagonist, Loup Garron, is conceived, her heritage and the source of her preternatural abilities. And then we fast forward through Loup’s childhood, the relationship with her brother, Tommy, that comes to define her, and the inciting events for the bulk of the book.
The boxing was … not something I expected, at all. Boxing isn’t something that interest me much, either, so I was surprised how much I tolerated it. I like Carey’s descriptions of the movement and the artistry (though I wasn’t a huge fan of the narrator of this audiobook, Susan Ericksen). The choice of boxing makes sense for the story as well as for the themes Carey tries to explore around fighting, not giving up, and taking your punches but not going down.
Probably the best parts of this book for me were the relationships between Loup and Tommy and between Loup and the Santitos, particularly Pilar. I loved that in addition to an F/F relationship in which both characters are just trying to figure it out, people in the Outpost don’t bat an eye at Loup and Pilar’s involvement. No one directs homomisic slurs their way; no one calls it unnatural—sure, there are some jeers and leers, and some people like TY are upset, but those are for reasons related to personalities, not Loup or Pilar’s sexualities. What a nice example of how you can write a brutal dystopian town yet cut out a lot of the toxic bullshit around sexual orientation. Similarly, Loup and Tommy have such a warm, loving, loyal sibling bond. It’s awesome.
Less interesting? A lot of the stock characters, the way that profanity gets thrown around (I don’t have a problem with profanity, and maybe it was just the narrator, but for some reason so much of it felt extraneous to me), the predictable terribleness of the US military. I feel like Carey is telling a good yarn here, but in her rush to tell us this story about Loup training and taking up basically the mantle of her absentee father to become the hero that this village needs, she’s relying heavily on a lot of stock tropes. That’s not a bad thing, but it makes Santa Olivia less impressive than some of her other works.
The pacing of the book also takes a hit towards the middle or so, after Loup resolves to fight the Ron Johnson who is just like her. We get a very extended training montage, as years go by, and this part felt like it dragged for me. As much as I appreciate the turn in Loup’s relationship with Miguel Garza, this whole section could have been condensed and I think the book would be better for it.
Finally, the one thing really holding me back from loving this book is simply that I don’t feel like Loup was ever really in any danger. Even towards the end, I kind of knew what would happen. Yes, she takes on risks, and yes, she sacrifices. Yet this is a story on rails, a story inexorably proceeding towards a certain ending, one where Loup is successful if not entirely independently. The conflict in the middle, where Loup faces a choice between being with Pilar or pursuing her boxing revenge plot, is so good, so real. But when that fizzles away, we aren’t left with much.
Not sure if I want to tackle the sequel, to be honest. This was a fine diversion in audio form just when I needed one, but there are many better Carey books to be read, I’m sure.