Monday, May 25, 2009

Review of Santa Olivia

Santa Olivia is one of two new books being released by Jacqueline Carey, author of the well-known Kushiel's Legacy series, this year. Its official publication date is May 29. All of Carey's other books are epic fantasy, and this urban fantasy is very different from her previous work. As far as I know, this novel is a stand alone, but there is plenty of room for a sequel even though it has a satisfying ending.

The people feel as though they have been abandoned by God in Santa Olivia, which lies between the United States and Mexico. First, a deadly illness swept through it. Second, rumors abound about the threat of the Mexican general El Segundo. Soon after that, Santa Olivia was occupied by the army, walled off from the rest of the world, and declared Outpost No. 12, no longer a part of the United States of America. The only way out of Outpost No. 12 is to defeat the General Argyle's champion at boxing. The general is obsessed with the sport and has promised that anyone who wins the match can leave and choose one person to take with them.

Carmen Garron, a woman with a young son by a deceased soldier, met Martin, a mysterious man she believed to be a deserter. In spite of this, she finds herself strangely drawn to him and invites him to say with herself and her child Tommy. Eventually, Carmen discovers Martin is actually one of The Lost Boys, children who were experimented upon since they were about 8 years old and made into wolf/human hybrids. Not only is Martin stronger and faster than humans, but he also does not to feel fear of any sort. He and Carmen fall in love, but sadly, Martin is forced to flee soon after Carmen finds out she is pregnant.

Carmen has a baby girl and names her Loup, the name Martin picked out for the child. Like her father, Loup is faster and stronger than normal and she has to be taught to think carefully before she acts since she does not have the natural instinct of fear. When Loup is ten years old, Carmen dies and she and Tommy are sent to separate places - Loup moves in with the other orphans at the community church and Tommy lives at the gym where he continues to train as a boxer, more determined than ever to get himself and Loup out of Outpost No. 12. Meanwhile, Loup and her fellow orphans become angered by the acts of some of the soldiers and decide to use Loup's special abilities to provide some vigilante justice, all under the guise of the child saint Santa Olivia.

The only other novel by Jacqueline Carey I have read is Kushiel's Dart, a dense dark fantasy book with a very intriguing alternate Europe. Santa Olivia is very different from this novel, and I am impressed by Carey's diversity. This urban fantasy is much shorter and more concisely written - while Kushiel's Dart took me 2 weeks to get through, Santa Olivia took me only 2 days to read in its entirety. The new novel is set in modern times and is confined to one basic area instead of the sprawling world in Kushiel's Dart. Language used in dialogue is much more modern with quite a bit of profanity.

While the writing style and world are very different, there are some basic similarities between Kushiel's Dart and Santa Olivia. Both main characters are different from everyone else and each struggles with these differences, particularly when it comes to love. Carey is not easy on the main protagonist in either story, although Santa Olivia is overall less dark than Kushiel's Dart. There is some focus on religion, although the town of Santa Olivia has Catholicism as opposed to the religion based on 'love as thou wilt' in the Kushiel's Legacy series.

Santa Olivia was one of those books I could hardly put down because I just had to read the next chapter... and then the next... and then the next one. The beginning about Carmen was interesting and well-written, but I felt that the novel did not really start hooking me until Loup became the main character. Looking back at the earlier chapters, most of the background on the town and its transformation to Outpost No. 12 and Carmen's life before Loup added a lot to the story and set the tone of the desperate lives of the citizens. (The first chapter about the change from Santa Olivia to Outpost No. 12 had me riveted but I started feeling like Carmen's history was dragging after that unless it involved Martin.) So I think I was just being impatient about getting to the meat of the story, but reading about Loup was still the best part. Even the parts about boxing kept me glued to the book, and I've always thought a sport that consisted of two people beating each other up is pretty stupid. [Ed: as opposed to reading about duels, massive battles, and schemes to kill? Gotcha.]

My favorite parts were definitely anything where Loup and her friends sent a message from Santa Olivia. I loved seeing what they came up with and the reaction to the visitations. The orphans would carefully plan, scout locations, and use everyone's skills, not just Loup's strength and speed. The smarter children would write the messages from Santa Olivia and do their best to make sure everything worked without a hitch. It was still always risky, but it always seemed at least somewhat believable that they managed to pull it off and even more so that the people would want to believe in the saint's intervention. In a town that felt abandoned by God, it gave so much hope to think that Santa Olivia had not forgotten them and was looking out for her people.

The dialogue is very well-written - sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and it says a lot about the characters in a book that never really gets very deeply into anyone's head. Loup tends to be calm and controlled, Jane is always snarky, Pilar is sweet and flirty, and Sister Martha and Father Ramon cracked me up with lines such as:
It seems Santa Olivia and her basket of plenitude has turned into an ass-kicking masked avenger. (Father Ramon, p. 114)

Let the rigid stick of self-righteousness be dislodged from her very uptight ass. (Sister Martha, p. 127)
This was a book I read more for the plot than the characters, but I did love Loup, her brother Tommy, and Miguel. Of course, Loup is the star - so sympathetic since she was so different from the other teenagers she grew up with and knew so little about her genetics. She had to be careful not to reveal she had some abilities other humans did not and this was something she had to learn without fearing anything. They sometimes viewed her as a freak anyway, but she also found that anyone who paired up with her found kissing her felt very weird.

Santa Olivia is a well-written novel, at times touching and at other times tragic, about hope, love, growing up and being different. While it didn't resonate with me personally as much as the gorgeous world of Kushiel's Dart, it was still very enjoyable. Highly recommended.


Read Chapter One


orannia said...

Ohhh, thank you Kristen. This sounds really good. I've never read Jacqueline Carey before. Would Santa Olivia e a good place to start, or shall I start on the first Kushiel book (although the length does scare me :)

orannia said...

And I'm sorry to ask you yet ANOTHER book question but I saw Flesh and Spirit in your Library Thing list. It looks...interesting.

Kristen said...

Orannia - You could start with either Santa Olivia or Kushiel's Dart, depending on your preference. Personally, I preferred Kushiel's Dart but it is a big time commitment at approximately 900 pages long (and it is fairly dense too). If you prefer something shorter and more to the point, I'd recommend starting with Santa Olivia, which is also rather good. But if you want to read a dark epic fantasy with a well-developed and interesting world, you can't go wrong with Kushiel's Dart!

No need to apologize for asking book questions - I don't have any problems with talking about books! :)

Flesh and Spirit was pretty good, but I did not think it was Carol Berg's best book. I would recommend beginning with the first book in her Rai-kirah series, Transformation (ignore the cheesy cover - I tried to get my fiance to read it once and even though I gave him the same advice, he looked at the cover, said "No way!" and gave the book back to me). It's one of my all time favorites and even though it's the start of the series, it's also a complete story with no cliffhangers and a satisfying ending of its own. I loved the characters, the story, the friendship between the two main characters. It's one that I am definitely going to reread at some point.

I did write a review of Flesh and Spirit, though, if you want to read more about that one.

orannia said...

Ohh, thank you Kristen. My library has a copy of Transformation AND Flesh and Spirit. Hmmmm, I'll read your review of F&S but I think I'll listen to your advice and start with Transformation :) Thank you!

And I think I try Santa Olivia before Kushiel's Dart. 900+ pages scares me, especially considering how long it took me to read Lover Avenged!

Kristen said...

Orannia - Oh good, I'm glad your library has Transformation - I cannot wait to hear what you think of it!

I can understand why 900+ pages scares you. After hearing nothing but very good things about Kushiel's Dart, it still sat on my bookshelf for a little over a year before I dared attempt it.

Little CJ said...

Carolyn can't wait for this book! Thanks for the review.

Kristen said...

Little CJ - Thanks for stopping by!

*cowers* Eek! Please don't make a voodoo doll of me for not passing on the Little CJ award yet. I promise I will!