Book Review: Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey (2009)

July 9th, 2012 10:42 am by Kelly Garbato

“Santa Olivia” will leave you howling for more.*

five out of five stars

— Warning: moderate spoilers follow! —

North America. The year is … well, we don’t know the year. Suffice it to say that it’s some time in the not-so-distant future. A flu pandemic has swept the continent, killing millions and exacerbating already-unconscionable inequities. Scared, desperate, and dying, Mexican immigrants flood U.S. hospitals in search of medical care. The leaders of the “land of the free” respond to this crisis not with charity and compassion, but by circling the wagons. In an effort to tighten the border, the government annexes a portion of Texas, declaring it a “buffer zone” to be occupied indefinitely by the U.S. military. The citizens of Santa Olivia – now simply called “Outpost 12”** – are given a choice: evacuate to other parts of the United States, or stay. Possibly forever. Overcome by poverty and sickness – and some, like Carmen Garron, just children at the time of the occupation – there is no choice to make at all.

And so the remaining Santa Olivians enter a state of limbo; they are neither dead nor alive. As far as the rest of the world knows, they don’t exist: one of the government’s many lies is that civilians no longer inhabit Outpost 12. Aside from military personnel, no one is allowed to travel into or out of Santa Olivia. There is no contact with the outside world: no phone, no internet, no television, no newspapers. No way of screaming for help; no rescue. The residents of Santa Olivia have only each other.

It’s into this dystopia that our hero Loup Garron is born. Loup isn’t like other children. Her father, an escaped government “project” – a genetically modified organism (GMO) who, because of gene splicing, exhibits superhuman strength, speed, and stamina, as well as an inability to feel fear – left town just as suddenly as he appeared. Named for the wolf DNA that they share, Loup is raised mostly by her older half-brother Tommy, who teaches her how to conceal her exceptional abilities, lest she be “requisitioned” by the U.S. military. Even as she watches Tommy hone his own skills as a boxer – strength, power, and agility which she could easily surpass – Loup lives in the shadows, unnoticed. Unappreciated. Unutilized. For Loup, it’s “purgatory.”

In the space of just five years, Loup loses both her mother and brother: Carmen succumbs to another wave of the flu pandemic, and Tommy is killed in the boxing ring. In the interim, a twelve-year-old Loup is sent to live in the town’s only orphanage. Run by “Father” Ramon and “Sister” Martha, the children who live within the safety of the church’s wall forge a strong bond: they are the Santitos. When a soldier rapes one of their own and the army refuses their demand for justice, Santa Olivia is born. With Loup acting as their muscle, the Santitos exact revenge upon the rapist and his lying, rape-enabling friends, and then set to work performing “miracles” for the townspeople. The town’s patron saint experiences a rebirth of sorts – and with her, so does Loup Garron.

When Tommy is killed – murdered – during a rigged boxing match, Loup faces her greatest challenge: convince Tommy’s trainer Floyd to take her on so that she can beat the boxer who killed her brother. No small feat, since he’s like her: a “Wolf-Person.”

Boxing is the primary form of entertainment in Santa Olivia. Run by the military – on account of the general’s love of the sport – the matches always consist of a soldier versus a civilian. While the soldier’s motivation is clear – they serve at the pleasure of their general – Santa Olivians are bribed into participating with the promise of two tickets out of town for the winner. No civilian has ever won a match in the history of Outpost 12. Tommy had a shot – which is why General Argyle replaced boxer Ron Johnson with his GMO twin.

For Loup, success will most certainly mean imprisonment. Slavery, perhaps. Possibly even death – execution as a traitor. Yet fight she must: for her brother, for herself, and for all of Santa Olivia. She is their new patron saint.

— End: spoiler alert! —

Gripping, suspenseful, and lovingly crafted, SANTA OLIVIA is a gem. It’s the kind of book that’s nearly impossible to put down (“Just one more chapter!”), and the story will linger with you long after you’ve turned the last page. In tumblr speak, it’ll give you feelings, and you’ll need a bucket for your creys (eased ever-so-slightly by the knowledge of a sequel, SAINTS ASTRAY).

Jacqueline Carey has created a story that’s both beautiful and chilling – and one in which so many of us can see reflections of ourselves. Carey’s slice of America is one that’s refreshingly diverse: her landscape is populated with characters that represent a variety of races, ethnicities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations. (I almost hope that SANTA OLIVIA doesn’t get the Hollywood treatment, lest they whitewash the characters and pander the lesbianism to the male gaze.)

While Carey doesn’t explicitly delineate each character’s race, it’s obvious that many Santa Olivians are of Hispanic descent. Garron, Garza, Perez, Salamanca – so many of the surnames hint of Latin American heritage. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that Santa Olivia is a border town (shouldn’t be but nevertheless is).

Loup herself is biracial. Carey unambiguously describes her father Martin as black: “A soldier like any other, this one a black man in desert fatigues wearing his cap with the brim pulled low to shadow his face.” (page 10) While his ethnicity is a matter of debate – the experiments which created Martin were conducted on Haitian soil by the Chinese government – Martin is unequivocally black. Less attention is paid to Carmen’s racial makeup, but all available clues suggest that she’s Latina.

Let me repeat: the hero of the story is unmistakably Not Caucasian. This is huge. It’s important that people of all shapes, colors, and sizes see themselves represented in pop culture – as heroes, as villains, and as everything in between – find their identities validated, even celebrated. Be able to relate to the characters on page and screen, derive inspiration from their triumphs. Stories are an important part of human culture (“tell them stories” – a pivotal quote in Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy – springs to mind), and it’s imperative that these stories include us all. Note to writers, publishers, filmmakers, et al.: we need more of this, not less. Keep it coming!

Loup’s sexuality is somewhat unusual as well. Because of her abnormal – some might even say “unnatural” or “abominable” – genetic makeup, and the way it manifests in her body’s musculature, Loup physically repulses many potential lovers. For example, her first sexual experience is with her best friend Mack, who wants desperately for his physical attraction to rival his emotional feelings for Loup. However, he describes sex with Loup as “too much of a good thing” – physically overwhelming, even painful. Though Loup develops feelings for a few of the male Santitos, and they for her, ultimately she enters into a relationship with another young woman, Pilar. Like Carmen with Martin, Pilar is the only one who’s able to connect with Loup – the only person for whom Loup’s differences are a turn-on. Readers might be tempted to label Loup “gay” or “bisexual,” but it’s difficult to say how closely her sexual orientation mirrors that of a “normal” (read: non-GMO) human, if it all. Perhaps her sexuality is more strongly influenced by her partner’s response to her, than to that person’s gender? “Wolf-People” are described as monogamous, with a tendency to form strong bonds to one partner and one partner alone. Possibly gender is irrelevant. Or, if one must label her, perhaps Loup is best described as pansexual.

Also unexpected is SANTA OLIVIA’s depiction of a polyamorous trio: Father Ramon, Sister Martha, and Anna, all of whom live and serve together at the church. While their relationship is generally portrayed in a positive light – together, the three of them selflessly serve the citizens of Santa Olivia, providing them with food, medical care, secondhand clothing, and oh yes, prayer and worship from time to time; the three are rarely seen quarreling, and the relationship is shown as stable, long-lasting, and mutually satisfying – there’s also a downside: Anna is a former ward of the orphanage. Presumably Father Ramon and Sister Martha acted as surrogate parents to a young Anna, which makes their relationship kind of gross and creepy – a little rapey, even. Don’t get me wrong; there’s no suggestion that Anna joined Ramon and Martha’s relationship until she was of legal age, but still – this seems like a fundamental breach of ethics by two adults in positions of authority, and yet Carey completely neglects to explore the implications of this at all. It’s especially unfortunate to see these dynamics play out in the form of a romantic relationship that’s already maligned and misunderstood.

Major trigger warning for violence (including domestic violence) and sexual assault including rape, which isn’t uncommon in Outpost 12. I especially appreciate the way Carey approaches these issues, particularly Katya’s rape at the hands of a soldier. The author doesn’t shy away from calling it what it is – RAPE – and she deftly walks the line between realistically portraying the townspeople’s reactions to these incidents (including rape apologism), and clearly stating that rape is always wrong and always inexcusable. You won’t find a validation of victim-blaming here (though you will find victim-blaming, at least among the more misogynistic characters).

* Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

** Which hints at the existence of at least eleven other outposts. I smell a prequel!

(This review also appears on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

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One Response to “Book Review: Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey (2009)”

  1. Book Review: Saints Astray, Jacqueline Carey (2011) » V for Vegan: Says:

    […] follow-up to 2009’s Santa Olivia picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off. Saints Astray finds Loup and Pilar fleeing […]

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