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Review: Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey

In the future, Mexico has gone to war against the United States, necessitating the creation of buffer zones.  Santa Olivia lies within this buffer zone, the inhabitants stripped of all rights, privileges, and luxuries, no longer citizens of the United States.  Carmen Garron is one of those citizens, looking for love against the odds, and temporarily finding it twice.  Her second love has been genetically engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, sight, but has a complete lack of fear.  He is also infertile, or at least they think so until Carmen conceives a child, named Loup Garron for her fugitive father.  As Loup grows to maturity in a church, she takes on the guise of Santa Olivia, providing justice to the town in a way no one else imagined, and taking huge risks to stand up for the rights she knows they deserve.

If this novel had not had Jacqueline Carey emblazoned on the cover, I would never have realized it was her.  Her writing is still gorgeous, but in a totally different way from her Kushiel series.  It’s rougher, to match this serious urban fantasy, but still retains a beauty and grace that is unmistakably Carey once it’s more carefully examined.  When she uses a bird in Carmen’s heart to describe her youthful hope and love in an elegant, but not melodramatic way, I fell in love:

In between the fourth and fifth rounds, Carmen Garron slipped through the crowd, made her way to the outside of the soldier’s corner.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her.

“Hi there.” He slid one muscled, sweaty arm through the ropes, touched her hand with his gloved fist.

The bird in her heart warbled.

I could read Jacqueline Carey’s books all year and never get bored.

This is a completely different type of urban fantasy than most of what is found on the bookstore shelf.  It is a gritty, hard reality, a world in which there is no hope.  There are no vampires or witches, just genetically engineered humans who are ostacized from society.  Somehow, Loup Garron shines in this world, an enigmatic main character that is different enough to make her special and human enough to make her real.  Loup provides not only hope to the people of Santa Olivia, but to readers; she’s the embodiment of determination and spirit.  The werewolf, without turning into a wolf, concept is cleverly done even if rarely mentioned.  Loup’s strength sets her apart but her desire to be at least mostly normal brings her into a group of orphans who provide the backbone for her inspiring journey. She doesn’t quite fit in, but that just makes us love her all the more.  Meanwhile, the town of Santa Olivia is a terrifying potential reality.  It’s unlikely but just real enough to strike fear in our hearts and cause us to hope for Loup’s success.

To be honest, I don’t love this book as much as I love any of the Kushiel’s Legacy series.  In some sense, though, that is like comparing apples to oranges, since they are so different in feel, setting, scope, and character development.  Santa Olivia is a great read all on its own and that is how it should be judged.  As such, I think Carey made a wise move in trying out a different kind of fantasy.  A sequel has been proposed, but this book, while somewhat open-ended, ends satisfactorily and left me hopeful for the future.

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