Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey

"SANTA OLIVIA DOES NOT FORGET."

Billed to me as a story of a werewolf who becomes a superhero in a dystopian world, I struggle to describe it more accurately and yet retain its actual meaning. Santa Olivia is a story about surfacing from oppression, creating your voice and living full speed. It is also a story about boxing and military-control.

In the first few chapters we view life in Outpost Number 12, née Santa Olivia, in polaroids. Carmen Garron is thirteen when the land upon which the town sits is seized and declared a buffer between Mexico and the United States. This is no longer Texas, this is no longer the United States, these are no longer citizens of any country, as far as anyone outside is concerned, they don’t exist.

Carmen Garron meets a soldier and falls in love, giving birth to her first child, a boy. Her love will come back for her after his tour, he says. But that won’t happen.

She falls in love with a stranger, a rover, a deserter, and he stays as long as he can before he is chased away. All he leaves is a mystery and another child, a daughter. She is as strange as he was, with a calm unlike children, an inability to cry, and is completely and utterly fearless.

Loup Garron grows up hyper-sensitive of all the things she can’t do, and of the horrible life they lead in Outpost. She dresses as Santa Olivia, the child saint, and brings hope back to the town. Meanwhile, her brother dreams of winning a match against the boxers the military posts to Outpost, winning two tickets out of there.

The book has ultimately relatively little to do with Superheroes (or Superheroines), Santa Olivia might wear a cape for a single escapade in this book, but her presence is felt throughout the book. She’s a patron of peace, and specifically for the protagonists, a beacon of hope, a reminder of the spirit the town had when it was free. Loup embodies the child throughout her life, asking for her guidance and unselfconsciously bringing guidance to a people who are nameless.

While a quick read might not bare it’s gears as easily — by virtue of consuming a book more quickly, I don’t think about contrivances until afterward — this one only felt like a book when I really thought about the motivation for a certain piece of dialogue. Writing is hard, and I can really appreciate how much work Jacqueline Carey put into this precisely because it felt so effortless. Oddly, I found the alien Loup among the most relatable and realistic. The smallest roles were practically invisible (in a good way!) and the rest are justifiably complicated, flaws and missteps are a part of being supporting characters. At worst Loup could be described as boring, but she’s far from passive. She has a penchant for thinking before jumping which means the plot avoids routine pitfalls. The biggest conflicts (aside from the climax) arise when Loup and her more human compatriots miscommunicate, as cliché as that sounds, it isn’t. Loup distracts herself, but when that doesn’t work, she moves. She is a character of action, and that keeps this whole story (taking place over thirty years) moving fast enough to excuse any careful steps Loup takes to remain undetected.

This is a superheroine story.

341pp. Grand Central Publishing. 2009.

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