Book Review: Saints Astray, Jacqueline Carey (2011)

December 21st, 2012 12:05 pm by Kelly Garbato

Lacks the urgency of Santa Olivia.

two out of five stars

* Warning: minor spoilers follow! Also, trigger warning for discussions of sexual harassment and assault. *

The follow-up to 2009’s Santa Olivia picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off. Saints Astray finds Loup and Pilar fleeing into Mexico. Behind them is Outpost 12, known to its residents as Santa Olivia – an occupied military “buffer zone” in Texas that’s long been isolated from the rest of the world; ahead of them: freedom.

After Loup’s escape from a military prison – with the help of John Johnson, a fellow genetically modified organism (GMO), as well as an extended family of GMO cousins living free in Mexico – Loup receives a hero’s welcome in Mexico City. Already overwhelmed by the relative luxury and vastness of their new surroundings, Loup and Pilar are pampered, treated to shopping sprees and rich meals at five-star restaurants. The two women take meetings with Mexican officials; network with Timothy Ballantine, a United States Senator who’s trying to start an inquest into the US Outposts and the military’s conduct there; and receive a job offer from Magnus Lindberg of Global Security, an international firm providing security for obscenely wealthy clients.

With these formalities out of the way, Loup and Pilar travel to Huatulco, Mexico, to (finally) meet her kin. Here Loup finds true freedom. Because of the questionable status of “GMOs” in the United States (not to mention Santa Olivia’s own precarious existence), Loup was forced to hide her powers – superhuman strength, agility, and speed – for most of her life. That is, until the fateful boxing match that ended in Loup’s bittersweet victory – and her subsequent imprisonment and torture. But in Mexico, the existence of GMOs is an open secret, and in the tourist town of Huatulco her “wild” cousins (all boys – curious, that) are allowed open displays of their powers. Her relatives welcome her with open arms; in Loup’s words, her days in Huatulco are “idyllic.”

Happy as she is in Mexico, Loup cannot – will not – let herself be lulled into complacency. Haunted by thoughts of her fellow Santa Olivians – still eking out a meager existence in the shackles of poverty and oppression – Loup vows to make her second chance count. Somewhat reluctantly, she and Pilar accept Lindberg’s proposal. He can offer them fake passports, a steady income, connections, and – perhaps best of all – a hands-on education. The two are whisked away to Scotland, where they’re trained in self-defense, firearms, surveillance, security, research, even manners and poise. A natural (or man-made, if you prefer) fighter, Loup excels at the physical challenges, while Pilar’s social skills lend themselves well to her role as a personal assistant. They work a variety of jobs: concerts, birthday parties, weddings – and are in high demand, owing both to their abilities as well the “novelty” and “prestige” that come with Loup’s GMO status.

Eventually their contract is sold to Kate, an English pop rock trio that hopes to capitalize on Loup’s image. After Loup makes several on-stage appearances to remove unruly fans, she becomes known as the “Mystery Girl”; fan videos of her go viral, and soon concertgoers begin rushing the stage just for the privilege of being manhandled by Loup. Lead singer Randall, who’s trying to push the band’s sound in an edgier, more mature direction, finds inspiration in Loup and Pilar’s life stories. Of course, this only helps to further cultivate interest in Kate’s seemingly superhuman bouncer.

As Loup and Pilar’s careers heat up, so too do the congressional hearings in the United States. Miguel Garza, who received his promised ticket out of Outpost 12 after all, is called to testify – and then is kidnapped and held for ransom by a casino owner. When the US government fails to secure his release, Loup does the unthinkable: she returns to the United States (where she’s considered a fugitive, and possibly not even a human one at that) to rescue him. With a little help from Pilar and Kate, of course.

– end spoiler alert! –


2012-10-21 - Saints Astray - 0002

“Is that what makes us human? Fear?”
One of my favorite lines in Saints Astray comes during the Congressional hearings
on whether personhood should be extended to GMOs.

If all of this sounds a little far-fetched, it actually plays out believably enough on the page. (Save for the ending. The US government simply does not work that quickly!) Though Saints Astray is almost as beautifully written as its predecessor, the story lacks the urgency of Santa Olivia. Based on the book’s description, I went into the story with the assumption that Miguel Garza’s kidnapping and rescue would be the driving force of the plot. As it is, this plot line only gains steam in the last third of the book, and is resolved rather quickly; it’s kind of a let-down, really. The bulk of the book concerns Loup and Pilar’s work with Global Security and Kate. Though enjoyable, the tale is nowhere near as captivating as Santa Olivia.

Likewise, the title is a bit misleading, too. “Saints Astray” suggests that Loup and Pilar have lost their way; wandered from a preordained path. Again, this led me to make certain assumptions about the book’s plot: namely, that Loup and Pilar would be seduced into forgetting the other Santitos by their new, glamorous lifestyle outside of Outpost 12. (Only to be rudely yanked back to earth, such as by Miguel’s disappearance.) But this couldn’t be further from the truth: every step Loup takes in her career is with an eye on the greater good.

If it weren’t for certain other problematic aspects, I’d give Saints Astray a solid four stars instead of three. However, Carey allows her characters to engage in some harmful, abusive rape culture behaviors – without suffering any consequences, or even being called out on their actions.

As we saw with Loup and Pilar (and Loup’s parents Carmen and Martin before them) in Santa Olivia, the unusual physical characteristics of “GMOs” complicate their sexual lives. Though most “normal” people are repulsed by intimate physical contact with GMOs, in a small percentage of the population this differing physiology is a turn-on. While this plays out quite beautifully between Loup and Pilar in Santa Olivia – whose childhood friendship slowly grows into a love that burns hot and bright – here it results in some pretty gross interactions between Loup and “GMO fetishists” (for lack of a better word).

Most people, finding themselves immediately and intensely attracted to Loup, simply act like anyone who’s come down with a bad case of puppy love: they stammer, become inexplicably clumsy, and suddenly develop two right feet. Cute and not at all harmful. However, others fetishize, objectify, and sexually harass her. Most notable is Donny, one third of the trio that is Kate.

Throughout the book, Donny propositions Loup, even after she turns him down multiple times. When Loup asserts that she’s in a monogamous relationship with Pilar, Donny asks if he can watch the two of them together, or even join in (groan). He and the other band members ogle the two when they kiss or simply engage in other public displays of affection, and grill Loup and Pilar about their sex life. Donny asks Loup out to dinner and, when she assents – in order to “let him down gently” (like she hasn’t done so a dozen times at this point!) and with the condition that it be as friends – he repays her kindness by “stealing” a kiss at the end of the night. Donny repeatedly begs Loup to sleep with him, just once, so that he can see what being with a GMO is like and perhaps purge the desire from his system. (As though Loup exists to serve his needs.) And so on.

Donny’s continued attempts to obtain “consent” by wearing Loup down represent rape culture, full stop. No means no.

Complicating matters is the fact that Donny is Loup’s employer – making his behavior not just sexual harassment, but workplace sexual harassment, at that.

And given that Loup (definitely) and Pilar (probably) are women of color – and the members of Kate are most likely white – this involves some pretty oppressive racial dynamics as well.

Yet, Donny is never held accountable for his boorish, sexist behavior. In fact, quite the opposite: at least several times, Loup and Pilar talk about what great guys the men of Kate are.

Donny isn’t the only offender, either. On several occasions, Carey alludes to Charlie’s penchant for underage girls. Hiring “hookers” to dress as Catholic schoolgirls and “having sex” with underage groupies (read: statutory rape) – that Charlie, what a peach.

Nor are Donny and Charlie alone in their misogyny. On the home front, some of Loup’s older male cousins harass Pilar: not just inappropriately sexual flirting with their cousin’s girlfriend, but also touching her without her consent – for instance, one “wolf boy” flings Pilar over his shoulder, cave man style, and refuses to let her down until Loup threatens him with physical violence. All this is played off as good (if unruly) fun: boys will be boys, and wild boys will be even wilder.

This is especially disappointing in light of Santa Olivia. Katya’s rape at the hands of a soldier, for example, became the catalyst for Loup’s transformation into the mythical Santa Olivia: protector, avenger, miracle worker. While the story reflected the realities of living in a rape culture, at least some of the characters saw rape for what it is: a gross violation of one’s humanity. Here, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, and statutory rape are treated like charming quirks.

On second thought, I’m downgrading this review to two stars.

In spite of all this, I’d recommend Saints Astray to anyone who enjoyed Santa Olivia – primarily because it resolves the story, but also because it’s lovely to see Loup find herself among her “wolf” kin. Just read it with a critical eye on race, gender, and consent.

(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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