Book Review 2009 #18: Santa Olivia

Disclaimer: I received this book as an ARC by the Hatchett book group.

Santa Olivia is the latest book by Jacqueline Carey, who is better known for, and much better known for the Sundering Duology, and much much better known for two Kushiel trilogies. While the former is a take on classic fantasy and the latter are milestone in dark, sensual fantasy, Santa Olivia is a completely different kettle of fish.
The press information provided to me describes Santa Olivia as Jacqueline Carey’s take on comic book superheroes and the classic werewolf myth. However, what this novel is, I think, is far more nuanced and complex than that simple formulation.
The novel centers around Loup. Born in a future where a conflict and a disease has created such tensions between Mexico and the United States that a no man’s land has sprung up between the two nations, Loup lives in the abject poverty and virtual prison that makes up the titular piece of land controlled by the U.S. Military. Born of a genetically engineered father, and a local for a mother, we follow Loup’s life, from living with her mother and older half-brother, to her life as an orphan in the local church when she loses both of them.
Loup has a hard life in a hardscrabble world, but she does have her secret–the genetic heritage of her father. Her father’s special gifts of strength, fearlessness, paranormal senses, and speed have been fully inherited in Loup. What first starts as a secret to be held tightly for fear of discovery by the military turns into a opportunity to exact justice, and later still, an opportunity to escape…
While Loup does take up the mantle of a disguised superhero, and hints and nuances (including the very name given to her) suggest werewolves as an inspiration for the genetic manipulations which inadvertently created Loup, this novel is much more than a novel about a werewolf-powered comic book superhero.
Carey’s interest in Christian saints and iconography get play here in the identity that Loup takes in her retributive acts, the titular saint of the compound, Santa Olivia. The novel runs from before her birth to her ultimate escape and freedom, and so we follow her as she grows up, grows into her abilities and learns to use them as a symbol of hope and strength for herself, and for the people around her that she touches. There is a love story in the novel as well, and while the love story itself follows a relatively familiar pattern, the identities of the participants, and the development of the characters give it its own unique stamp.
I don’t think that the novel quite works as well as I had hoped. There are an awful lot of loose ends left unanswered by the denouement (not ones that really would be answered in a sequel, either). It’s difficult to do “near future” worldbuilding well, as any of the top lights in science fiction can tell you; Carey’s worldbuilding is much more assured in her other novels than here. I never really bought the Macguffin that the head of the camp holds as a potential means of escape, although I recognize its dramatic necessity as a device to propel the characters, Loup included, a chimerical banner to chase after. I was also surprised at first at the coarseness of language of the characters of all ages. It took a shift of perception on my part to go from the beauty of courtly language in Terre D’Ange to the salty, expletive filled language of the residents of Santa Olivia.
Overall, though, on the balance, I am happy that Carey wrote the novel. Not only on its merits, which, upon reflection do outweigh its drawbacks, but because I am a firm believer in author diversification. I don’t want Carey to write *only* endless Kushiel novels, just like I don’t want Stross to only write Merchant Prince novels. I want authors that I like (and Carey certainly has her place in there) to do well–but I’d rather not have them turn into one-series wonders, with each successive volume in the series groaning under the weight of the previous ones. Writing different things, I think, is a good way for an author to remain fresh, inventive, and keep me coming back for more.
So, if you come to this novel hoping for a rocking comic book superhero who changes into a werewolf at night, you are going to be very, very disappointed. This is really a novel about a little girl, born in a cage, who grows, learns to love, and learns to be free. And in the process, she learns to be an inspiration for all of those around her.