Santa Olivia

by Jacqueline Carey

Cover image

Series: Santa Olivia #1
Publisher: Grand Central
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-446-19817-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 341

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So, this is a boxing novel written by Jacqueline Carey.

For those of you who are familiar with Carey's work, I'm going to pause the review here so that you can boggle. For those who aren't familiar, Carey is best known for her Kushiel series, which is epic secondary-world fantasy with a lush and detailed setting, interesting twists on religion and mythology, and an elaborate, elegant sexuality. Santa Olivia is a radically different setting, and I understand why Carey was considering using a different pen name for marketing reasons.

To be clear, by boxing novel, I don't mean a novel in which boxing plays a part. I mean there is a young, raw fighter, a gruff old teacher with a good heart, a rivalry that leads to respect on both sides, an unbeatable opponent, and a training montage. One can easily imagine the Survivor soundtrack.

The best part is that it actually works. Carey at her best writes wonderful characters, with nuanced motivations and complex interactions, and Santa Olivia has several excellent ones. She also weaves in some sensuality and unconventional romantic attraction, this time with a carefully analytical and quietly accepting emotional background that I thought made it particularly powerful. And she has the rhythm and plot shape of the boxing story down, and uses it effectively.

Be warned going in that you'll have to suspend your disbelief by the neck until dead to accept the setting. Santa Olivia takes place in a near future in which the US border war with Mexico has gotten so bad that the military has sealed the border with two giant walls. The eponymous town is inside a border dead zone between the walls, which for some reason means that all the people who remained in it have ceased to be citizens of any country, are permanently trapped in the town, and are now a secret from the rest of the world. No one is allowed to know that they exist, but the local garrison commander loves boxing, so he holds out the offer that whichever local boxer can beat the champion of his choosing (often Olympic champions he brings in from outside) can leave the town with one other person. Otherwise, the town exists largely for the convenience of the local soldiers, maintaining bars and similar businesses and otherwise persisting on the money from the soldiers who rotate through (and somehow never tell anyone about the town).

Got all that? Okay, insert some genetic engineering to create a super soldier program, one product of which slips into the town from the outside, heading south towards Mexico, and stays long enough to have sex with a local woman. The book starts there, which is unfortunate since those aren't Carey's best characters and are not actually protagonists. The real protagonist is their daughter, Loup, who shows up forty pages in.

Loup makes this book. Carey is playing with the idea of a person without fear, but for Loup this is portrayed from the start as a possible handicap rather than a great asset. She literally cannot feel fear, which means that she's prone to taking terrifying risks unless she's carefully analytical about what she's doing. She lacks normal defense mechanisms. But she also has the other benefits from a super soldier program: speed, strength, agility. Oh, and sex is... weird. (You may have to take your disbelief out back and shoot it.)

So, yeah. A boxing novel crossed with Captain America, with sex. By Jacqueline Carey.

By now, you're probably wondering how this could possibly be a good book. But Loup is an amazing and fascinatingly different character, one of the best that Carey has come up with. She's nothing like the protagonists of the Kushiel series; she's quiet, thoughtful, and very restrained and self-contained. She's exceptionally calm. Through much of the book, she's quietly watching, considering, going along with other's ideas, and spending a lot of time watching her older brother trains to be a boxer. The lack of fear is not a gimmick. It makes her profoundly different, and Carey traces every angle of that difference and integrates it into a character who is simultaneously very alien and deeply compelling. I was amazed at how much I liked Loup, how much I started caring about her, and how much her quiet emotional restraint made me feel even more sympathy for her.

Carey also tells a great story of friendships, and of the shades of grey and shifting alliances of a small town in desperate straits. There aren't many villains in this book, even when some people seem to obviously be villains. There's an open-hearted curiosity and empathy in how Carey constructs her characters. She lets them change, grow, have flaws, struggle with their flaws, and give into them while still being admirable in other ways. And Loup's quiet matter-of-fact interactions provide a core of calm solidity that anchors the emotions of everyone else in the book. I've rarely seen a character used quite so effectively for showing the nature of everyone else around them.

I had no idea what to expect going into this book, and was dubious for the first fifty pages or so, but then was won over completely. By halfway through, I could barely put it down. It's a completely unbelievable background with some gaping consistency issues, but the characterization is just beautiful and Loup is a wonderful character. I could read thousands of pages about her, and will definitely be picking up the sequel.

You're going to have to just go with the world background, but if you can do that, and you like Carey's loving characterizations of slightly askew characters, this is great stuff. Recommended.

One final note that a friend pointed out: Carey here doesn't avoid swearing or rework the language like she does in the Kushiel books, and the characters here swear a lot. I'm not sure if Carey just doesn't know anyone personally who swears, or if she just has trouble writing it, but it just doesn't quite work. The characters sound like they've been given a Berlitz guide to swear words. They're very earnestly trying to follow its instructions and insert the words at grammatically and emotionally appropriate points, but they don't really know how. I couldn't tell you exactly why it's not right, but it's just not how people actually swear, to the degree that it's unintentionally funny. This doesn't detract from the book; if anything, it fits Loup surprisingly well and adds a little bit. But it's really amusing once one starts noticing it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-07-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21