Santa Olivia

Jacqueline Carey, Santa Olivia (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)

Fans of Jacqueline Carey will be pleasantly surprised, I think, by her latest offering and its inherent divergence from her usual style: there is nothing of the lush language and sensuous worldbuilding of the Kushiel’s Legacy series here, nor any of the tragic melancholia and subverted fantasy tropes of The Sundering duology. No, Santa Olivia is the essence of the desert: sparse, bright, gritty, and full of visions that might mean hope or death.

Santa Olivia is set in an analogue of our world: it’s almost identical to our current time, except a terrible pandemic has devastated the human population (at least in America and Mexico) and led to a military cordon being established along the border of Texas and Mexico. The cordon is a sort of no-man’s-land, with the small town of Santa Olivia and its citizens unwilling to forsake their homes being converted into Outpost No. 12, a settlement serving the soldiers from the nearby United States’ military base established to police the cordon. Life is hard and hopeless for the citizens of Outpost; there is no civilian police, but gangs tolerated by the MP keep things in a grim semblance of order and arrange nightlife for the soldiers. There are barely enough necessities to go around for Outpost’s denizens, much less amenities or distractions. There’s no escape: no one from Outpost is allowed to leave, and its uncertain whether anyone outside of the military base knows they’re still there.

The story opens with Carmen Garron: waitress and soldier’s lady. Her perspective is a bit hard to get into as there’s so little to Carmen’s life beyond work, men, and eventually her children. However, Carmen’s opening does what it’s meant to do: it establishes the simplicity of Outpost and how circumscribed life there is. It demonstrates that there is still value in people, even in this untenable situation of an exploited people (or non-people, as remaining in Outpost stripped them of their rights as citizens). And when a mysterious, genetically-altered man who can feel no fear walks out of the desert, it demonstrates that neither hope nor love can die.

From Carmen and this “wolf-man,” comes Loup Garron. Loup is our main character: a girl who can feel no fear thanks to her father’s genetic contributions. A girl who can throw harder, run faster, and endure much more than anyone else in Outpost. A girl who loves her older brother Tommy, product of Carmen’s earlier tryst with her first soldier love: Tommy, who is a shining beacon of hope for Outpost and their premiere boxer. And Loup is a girl who is eventually orphaned, sent to live in the church under the auspices of the saint on whose day she was born.

What follows is a page-turning, intoxicating tale of human relationships and the sheer power hope has in our lives. There’s a miscreant bunch of Orphans (the Santitos) who define Loup’s life and who lead to mythology-building superhero adventures. There’s a lover too afraid to be with a woman unable to fear for herself and simultaneously too afraid not to. There’s boxing and military intrigue and heartbreaking death and laugh-out-loud-so-you-won’t-cry irreverent clergy.

There is all of this in spare prose and profane language. Indeed, I cannot resist sharing the opening paragraphs with you:

“They said that the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows wept tears of blood the day the sickness came to Santa Olivia. The people said that God had turned his face away from humankind. They said that saints remember what God forgets about human suffering.

Of course they said that in a lot of places during those years.

For a long time, there was dying. Dying and fucking. A lot of dying and a lot of fucking, and more dying.

There were rumors about El Segundo’s forces staging raids across the wall; Santa Anna el Segundo, the rebel Mexican general. If it was true, they were never seen anywhere near Santa Olivia. But why would they be? There wasn’t a hospital there. After the second wave of sickness, there wasn’t even a proper doctor.

But it must have been true because the soldiers came.

The day the soldiers arrived, Our Lady’s tears dried to rust in her shrine.”

It is a remarkable maiden voyage into urban fantasy for Carey; I can only fervently hope that it will not be her last. For if there’s any flaw within Santa Olivia, it is this: this is just the beginning of Loup Garron’s tale, for I cannot accept it as the last.

More news on Jacqueline Carey and excerpts from her work (as well as some excellent body art inspired by her worlds) can be found online at her website.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on May 17th, 2009.