Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey. ★★★1/2
Loup Garron has an inability to feel fear along with super strength and speed, all heritage of her genetically engineered father. However, she’s been born into the town that once was Santa Olivia, but which is now part of a militarized buffer zone between the United States and Mexico. The residents are trapped in a town ruled by the military and the gangs they allow. If she wants to stay safe, Loup must hide who she is and what she can do. But what if risking everything is worth it?
Going into Santa Olivia, I had the vague impression it was YA. It’s not. There’s certainly coming of age elements involved, but the tone of the book is much older. It’s a dark, gritty book. I think “grimdark” might be a good description for it.
As you might be able to guess from my description of it’s protagonist, Santa Olivia riffs off the superhero genre. However, I wouldn’t call it a superhero book. For a section of the novel, Loup dons a costume and enacts vigilante justice under the guise of the town’s namesake, Santa Olivia. But this is a limited section of the book, and there’s not a whole lot of acts of justice. The problem isn’t just the gangs or criminals, it’s the entire power structure where the townspeople are ruled over by the military. What can Loup really do against them? If she goes too far, the entire might of the army will come crashing down on the town. She can never be more than an annoyance, but she might be able to provide some form of hope to the townspeople.
Since Santa Olivia is largely about oppression, it’s fitting that Loup exists at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. She’s the child of a Texan Latina women and a black Haitian, she’s female, and she’s either bisexual or lesbian as well. I think the inability to feel fear is also important here, but it’s interesting that it creates a whole different set of problems for Loup. She doesn’t have the emotional incentive to make the “smart” choice.
Loup’s major romantic relationship is with a girl named Pilar. I think Pilar’s existence was important, as she gave Loup something to lose. She now has a stake in staying safe. However, I don’t know how much I buy into Loup and Pilar’s relationship or them being in love. The relationship presented on page was mostly physical. When they were together, it felt like the majority of their scenes were sexual. It was hard for me to get a sense of them having an emotional connection. Loup in general could feel emotionally distant to me, so that could be part of it.
The plot and construction of the book could have been stronger. The novel starts with how her parents met, and Loup herself isn’t born until after forty pages in. There’s not a strong overarching plot, and the book sort of slides from one thing to another. The structure could have worked if the characterization had been stronger, but as is it didn’t really do it.
I’m not sure who I’d recommend Santa Olivia to. It’s distinctive enough that I can’t really give it a subgenre, and it’s hard to pick out specific elements to recommend it upon. Perhaps the focus on oppression and power structures? A female lead who’s either gay or bisexual? If either of those interest you, you may want to try Santa Olivia.