Monday, May 25, 2009

Santa Olivia, by Jacqueline Carey - Review

Just about a year ago, I went to a book signing for Kushiel's Mercy and listened to Ms. Carey speak about the two Kushiel trilogies, the upcoming Naamah's Kiss, and a mysterious side project that, with a self-deprecating hand-wave and maybe a little embarrassment, she referred to as "this, kind of... urban fantasy... post-apocalyptic... border-town... story. With, like.... werewolves. Sort of."

This is about as different from her alternate-history epic fantasy trilogies as you can get. So different, in fact, the book initially was to be published under a different pen name. I'm not sure whether that was Carey's idea or her publisher's, or what changed, but Santa Olivia is the result.

Frankly, I didn't know what to expect. I love, love, love the Kushiel books, especially the earlier ones, but I didn't like her Banewreaker/ Godslayer duology at all. So I was primed to like Santa Olivia, but I didn't figure it was a sure thing by any means.

When I get a new Kushiel book, I tend to hold on to it for a little while before I dive in. They're big books; high fantasy with a lot of dense world building and intricate characterization, and I like to be able to dive in and immerse myself in the world, rather than stealing bits of time out of my daily bus ride and lunch hour.

Not so with Santa Olivia. It's less hefty, more accessible, and instantly drew me in -- even on a bumpy bus ride. In Carey's own words, the prose is "far more spare than my usual ornate style, [written] with a more muscular lyricism."

The Premise
I don't read very much in the way of dystopian speculative fiction, but I believe that is the correct literary pigeon-hole for Santa Olivia. In the wake of a devastating pandemic, the US borders close and Santa Olivia is declared a DMZ, or De-Militarized Zone. Residents who stayed when the soldiers came lost their US citizenship and became sort of post-modern camp followers. Technology has decayed, at least in Santa Olivia - electricity is hoarded for refrigeration; there is nothing in the way of broadcast information - no TV, no radio, no internet. The town is completely isolated - there is no Fed Ex, no USPS, no Greyhound routes.

As a result of military genetic experimentation, Loup is born with wolf DNA, which gives her several super-human capabilities like speed and strength, and some emotional anomalies. Carey eschews the shapeshifting and biting/turning bits of werewolf lore, relying instead on reasonably plausible scientific possibilities with a large dose of non-specificity. The world-building here concentrates on the political and social aspects rather than the paranormal.

Be warned, this is in no way a romance. There is a non-traditional romantic element to it that was nice sidenote, but it was very minor in the overall story arc. Folks who are put off by books that blur the line between urban fantasy and romance will find little ambiguity here. I wouldn't be surprised to find, in 20 years, this title to be named in the same breath as 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale.

Good Stuff

I'm pretty sure Carey could write a tax-preparation manual and it would still be beautifully written. That is, her language is lyrical and an almost physical pleasure to read, even if the story itself isn't to your taste. In the deathbed scene of Carmen, Loup's mother, the ten-year-old Loup is described:
Tears gathered in Loup's eyes and shone there without falling. Even when she'd cried as a baby, there were never tears. There was something strange and pure about the quality of her unleavened sorrow; strange and pure and oddly comforting, as though a child-saint or a fearless, untamed creature had come to keep a vigil over Carmen's death. Carmen lifted one hand and traced the curve of her daugher's cheek.
One thing I like about the way this book is written is that, even though the paranormal aspects are understated, they are not tentative in any way. You can see it in the passage above -- whatever it is that is different about Loup, Carey's vision of all aspects of that differentness is rock solid.

The story builds inexorably toward a major conflict which worked well for me - hard to say more without spoilering, but I'd say the final leg of the build-up and the conflict itself were among the Good Stuff for the book.

Things That Make Me Say Hmmmmm
In one of the cover blurbs, Eric Van Lustbader calls Santa Olivia "... a love song to the beauty and power of being different." I'm not so sure I agree. I felt like Loup's "differentness" was only a vehicle to examine the notion of hope for the town of Santa Olivia. What happens without it. What happens when it appears, when it fades. The rise and fall of hope in the town of Santa Olivia is the story of Santa Olivia. Why this section, rather than the "good stuff"? I'm ambivalent about whether the resolution was completely satisfying, and I can't seem to separate that from the theme.

The story takes place over a number of years, starting with the day the soldiers came, when Loup's mother Carmen was a young woman, and lingering a bit over the brief time that she has with Loup's father. There's an extended bit while Loup's older brother Tommy trains as a boxer, and then the meat of the story is Loup's coming of age in the orphanage. It sometimes feels a little spotty, as though there is too much being skimmed over, and a number of interesting threads seemed to just drop. I suppose these "drops" were the believable outcomes within the rules of the world, but it was still a bit disappointing.

Similarly, the bit that follows the climax, leading out to the end, wasn't that great for me; it just seemed to fall a little flat. I couldn't tell if it was too rushed or too drawn-out. It felt like it should've sped up a lot, OR maybe that there could have been more of a subplot arc in between. I dunno.

The Very Best Part
Even more so than the Kushiel books, this is a very character-driven story. The relationships among the Santa Olivians are drawn like brilliant charcoal sketches - some just in broad strokes, some with intricate detail - and it is with these interactions that Carey paints in the subtle colors of mood and atmosphere. Most particularly, I love the dialog between Loup and Miguel, her sparring partner and unlikely friend:
"Is that why you started boxing?" Loup asked him. "To get out?"

"Yeah, that and I hit hard." Miguel regarded his cigar. "Might of been better off if I wasn't a Garza. Maybe I would of wanted it more, worked harder."

"Like Tommy," Loup said softly.

"Like Tommy," he agreed. "But then..."


They sat in companionable silence for awhile. A memory struck Loup.

"You said you saw my father once," she said. "Punched him."

"You remember that, huh? Yeah.

Her voice turned wistful. "What was he like?"

Miguel didn't answer right away. He sat and smoked. "Steady," he said at length. "Same way you are. He didn't even flinch when I hit him, like it wasn't worth his while to notice. I know I was just a kid, but I hit hard. Same eyes as you, same weird way of looking at people without blinking."
Miguel's character development throughout the book in fact is a bit of a microcosm of the town. He transforms, but only a little. Potential is recognized, crushed. Will it re-emerge? Flourish? Not without something changing. Which leads me to wonder--

What's Next?
Opinion around the 'net is divided as to whether there is good sequel fodder here. I think it's fair to say that the end of Santa Olivia leaves us with more questions than answers, and the larger conspiracy theory arc leaves plenty of room for more... but a return to this particular scene might be anticlimactic. There is by no means an unqualified happy ending, but consistent with the rest of the book, there is a thread of optimism running through the bleakness. The romance lover in me wants *everyone* to live happily ever after and to see that optimism realized. I'm not sure that would be such an interesting story, though, so I could definitely see the rationale in leaving it as a stand-alone.

It wouldn't make sense to review this book, right now, without some mention of the swine flu situation. The trigger event for Santa Olivia is a catastrophic outbreak of influenza, inroading to the US from Mexico. "It's a bit disconcerting," says Carey on her webpage. "This is not an instance where one hopes life imitates art." I don't know about you out there in Bloglandia, but it freaks me out a little bit.

Around the Blogosphere (Beware, most have spoilers to some degree)
Drey's Library
Sci Fi Guy (hah, we chose the same clip)
Pop Culture Zoo
Blog, Jvstin Style
A Reading Odyssey

Kind of a neat side effect of breaking out of the romance genre every now and then -- a whole 'nother world of blogs out there to discover!


Check back tomorrow for all the details. I'll have 5 copies to give away, courtesy of the Hachette Book Group.



Venus Vaughn said...

I hope I don't fall victim to first post curse (no one ever picks number 1). This book looks like a lot of fun.

Please throw my name in the hat :)

Nicola O. said...

Venus, there'll be a few ways to win - stop back tomorrow for more details. ;)

~ames~ said...

Hi Nicola - I just discovered your blog recently and thought I'd delurk to thank you for the review! I can't wait to read SO.

I'm a big fan of the Kushiel series too.

Kati said...

Hm, I slogged through the first Kushiel book this past year (on a dare from Carolyn Jean). I enjoyed it, but it was a tough read for me. Although, I did go buy the next in the series, which has been languishing on my TBR shelves for quite a while.

I'm guessing Santa Olivia would be equally tough work. I'd imagine though, if Carey's writing works for you, this book will be a refreshing treat.

Nicola O. said...

Kati, her fantasy is definitely a lot more dense to read. You can try a the first chapter on her website and see if Santa Olivia appeals to you more:

Nicola O. said...

Ames, it's nice to "meet" you! thank you for the compliment, and I hope to see more of you. :)

Carolyn Crane said...

OMG, how did you get this ARC???? It sounds great, too. I love that it's character driven - even more so than Kushiel? I'm there! I SO want this book! Okay, this is my official entry, but I will pimp your ass some.

chey said...

Wow! This sounds like a great read. Wolf DNA! Can't wait to read it.

Jackie M (Literary Escapism) said...

Interesting. I still haven't read any of Carey's work, but I'm slowly collecting her Kushiel series. It looks like I'll have to check this one out as well.

Oh, I'll be mentioning your contest in tomorrows post. :)

Caffey said...

Wow, awesome review!! Definitely do want to read this one! Looking forward to the contest!

Jacqueline C. said...

I keep seeing this one around and it's definitely peeked my interest.

StyleVamp said...

Would love to win this book...

Karen W. said...

I'm dying to read SANTA OLIVIA! Thanks for the contest. :)

karenwitkowski AT

Jacqueline C. said...

Here's the link to my blog post about this contest.

I'm also a follower of your blog.

Xiaonangua said...

this book looks exciting! can't wait to get a copy of it (maybe through this blog? :P).


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