Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia

Since I try to avoid getting involved in series titles (not always successful, I admit), I have to confess that I haven’t read anything by Jacqueline Carey until now, but I have heard her name since Locus named Kushiel’s Dart Best First Novel in 2001. When I discovered that Carey had written Santa Olivia, a stand-alone novel, I was eager to give her a try. Now I may have to go back and start reading the Kushiel books.

Think of what might have happened if Charles de Lint and Charles Dickens combined to put out a Marvel comic, and you have a pretty good idea of the kind of story Carey tells here.

I hope I am not too far off base in suggesting that the title Tex-Mex town, Santa Olivia, owes at least a little something to Oliver Twist. If the allusion wasn’t intentional, at least it works for me. See what you think.

And, as I was reading the novel, though the stories are entirely different, there was something about the narration, the mood and the tone that kept reminding me of The Mystery of Grace, de Lint’s engrossing recent modern fantasy, also set in the Southwest.

In the near future a conflict has erupted between the U.S. and Mexico. A military base has been set up on the border in the Texas town of Santa Olivia, and the sleepy village has been sealed off. The residents are neither allowed to leave nor to have access to news of what is happening in the rest of the world.

The general who runs the outpost loves boxing, and the only social outlet for the townspeople and the military establishment is occasional boxing matches that have taken on a festival-like atmosphere. The general has promised that any local fighter who beats one of his soldiers will win a pass for two to the outside, but, though the matches are occasionally close, the boys from Santa Olivia always lose.

Early on a rogue soldier named Martin, not assigned to the base, sneaks into the Santa Olivia. There is something different about him. He is really strong, really smart and really fast. A beautiful local girl, Carmen Garron, takes him in, and it isn’t long before the romance starts. Carmen, who already has a son she can barely support, worries she will become pregnant, but Martin assures her that his abilities come from a secret government experiment (he may even be part wolf), and, thus, he is sterile.

Oops. Not so fast there, Martin. The government has been known to screw-up in the past, so it is not surprising when Carmen starts to gain some weight. Soon Martin’s presence is discovered by the authorities, and he has to escape, leaving Carmen with a daughter she names Loup. Loup Garron (the obvious reference to loup garou is a bit painfully obvious, but that’s a minor problem with the book) begins to show some genetic traits inherited from her dad at an early age.

Many of the residents of Santa Olivia contract a virus, and before long Loup and her half-brother are orphans. The brother is old enough to take care of himself, working at the local gym and training to become a boxer. But Loup ends up in the church-run orphanage with a motley crew of likable troublemakers who use Loup’s almost superhuman talents to vex the soldiers.

You know what’s coming: Loup, with her father’s strength and speed, is bound to eventually step into the ring. But Carey provides her readers with a lot of fun and quite a few surprises before that happens.

For me Santa Olivia was a terrific summer read—fast-paced, with great characters, a little romance and a lot of action. Now, I guess it’s time to start the Kushiel series. Summer hasn’t officially started yet, and there are a lot of lazy days ahead.

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