Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon, engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, sensory capability, stamina and a total lack of fear, and Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.
After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town.
Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.
Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia masquerades as a superhero novel, from the cover art down to the blurb, but that is a false cover for a very different novel, about growing up, about responsibility, about dedication, about love, and about difference. Albeit treated through a lens not altogether distant from that of a superhero novel.
Carey’s Santa Olivia takes place in a strange netherworld, a legally nonexistent town controlled by an uneasy truce between the army and Mexican gangs native to Santa Olivia. The people are disenfranchised and powerless, existing and surviving by clinging on, by serving the forces that control them; either the army, the gangs, or both. There is no resistance to this system, no ways to fight it, no way to escape it… except in a boxing match. These are organised by an American trainer living in Santa Olivia despite its strange status, and the general in command of the army base stationed near the town. Winning gets one two tickets out; staying the course and losing on points gets pay; losing gets nothing. One of Santa Olivia‘s key themes is this need to escape, and the terrifying prospect of it not being possible; Carey beautifully sympathetically portrays the feeling of helplessness that holds the town and everyone in it, the feeling that nothing can be done to save themselves from the twin forces they’re trapped between.
It’s a kind of dark stasis, nothing changing… inevitably, until. But that until isn’t Loup’s birth; Carey does an interesting bait-and-switch in Santa Olivia, building up Loup as a saviour with special powers, including acting as a vigilante version of the patron saint of the town, before switching to her half-brother, Tom, as having a chance to beat the system by winning the golden tickets through boxing. It’s a novel of dedication and training, as we see first Tom and then Loup each training for the match of their lives, and indeed the lives of those around them; they’re not fighting for themselves, but for their families, for the town around them. Santa Olivia is a study in the focus of these two, of their single-mindedness; what they have to give up to try and be successful, what they sacrifice. Indeed, Carey makes very clear that it is a sacrifice to be so dedicated; that it does require one to give up things, to lose things. It’s quite a painful novel in that regard, as we watch a romance bud, grow, and end, rather drastically and dramatically; that it is a relationship between two women which isn’t stigmatised is especially nice to see.
Actually, the level of sex-positivity in Santa Olivia is incredible. Not only does the book showcase a lesbian relationship as its central romance, one which we see develop and see the emotion behind, but there is also a background romance that is both queer and polyamorous; whilst criticised in some quarters it seems to simply be accepted by the townspeople. Similarly, Carey simply has characters having sex without making it a big deal; it’s just something people do, another activity not entirely different in kind from gaming or drinking, as recreation. This is a really lovely thing to see in a novel, because it is so rare; especially when paired with a cast largely made of people of colour. Carey is almost ticking off the diversity boxes here; not literally, of course, but Loup is non-neurotypical, as is Mack, another character who is not genetically enhanced; Santa Olivia treats them as human and interesting, and the focus on Loup’s interiority means we learn an awful lot about how to see the world from a non-neurotypical perspective.
So far, this review hasn’t really discussed the novel qua novel much. That’s because Santa Olivia lends itself to discussing issues, and discussing its content; rather than answering questions, it asks them, and leaves them open. It does this, however, in a very enjoyable framework; Carey is an excellent writer, and the suspense in this novel can be heartstopping, the romance beautiful and moving, the emotion piercing, and the pain really does get incredibly, powerfully dark. Santa Olivia doesn’t zip along, because the prose is rich, beautiful, powerful; it isn’t excessive, but it does tend towards the lush, the sensuous or sensual; whether sex or torture, a boxing match or running, the physicality is amazingly conveyed alongside the sensation of action, and Carey really carries that off.
Santa Olivia isn’t the best novel in the world, granted; but it is an excellent one, and Jacqueline Carey has combined some incredibly emotive writing with some fascinating questions. I recommend it to you.