Book Review: Saints Astray, Jacqueline Carey (2011)

Friday, December 21st, 2012

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! –

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey (2009)

Monday, July 9th, 2012

“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! —

(More below the fold…)