Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
BOOK REVIEW: Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
Grand Central Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-0-446-19817-2
Anyone familiar with Jacqueline Carey’s works has come to expect expansive cultural landscapes. Her literary world of Terre d’Ange, the backdrop to many of her works, is perhaps the most vibrant and accessible environment in contemporary fantasy literature. With lesser talents, a country whose motto is “love as though wilt” would become merely a tawdry peep-show, but Carey’s respect for the vibrancy of physical and emotional interactions enhances and deepens her sumptuous characters. Her works are full of sweeping intrigue, lush yet brutal environments, complex characters and epic events.
What then do we make of her recent slim book, Santa Olivia? It takes place in a single location, a fictional town in postmodern Texas. The action covers a span of less than a few dozen years, rather than lifetimes. The language is almost spartan, just like the landscape. Santa Olivia’s characters are brutally simple, for their struggle is for survival amidst apathy. It is not an epic book, but instead, is almost –but not quite – a morality tale about the pain of being different.
It is simply amazing.
The town of Santa Olivia is no lush wonderland. Dry and impoverished, it is isolated and ignored, falling in a political buffer zone between the US and Mexico. Its people are cut off from the outside world, controlled by an unconcerned military and its own despair; they hide behind alcohol and faith of convenience and tradition. For them, there is no way out – out of town, out of their way of life.
Then one day, a mysterious outcast takes refuge in its anonymity. This man is different, with a hint of power that he refuses to use as he strives to pass unnoticed amongst the townsfolk. Eventually he is forced to flee – in and of itself an unacknowledged miracle. However, he leaves behind an infant daughter, Loup, who is also strangely different from other children: she never cries. As time passes, we learn that Loup also has inherited her father’s almost superhuman strength, an innate ability to learn by mimicking, as well as an utter lack of fear. When her mother dies, she and her brother Tommy come to the town’s orphanage, full of tragic and quirky (yet absolutely believeable) characters. This is where Loup quickly learns that being different means putting yourself and those you love in danger.
When life’s lessons are learned from the downtrodden and outcast, one of two things can happen: despair, or a catalytic frustration. We see both in Santa Olivia, but this time the outgrowth of the frustration is displayed by children who’s very isolation has left them scarred and yet strangely innocent in the ways of the world. Still, no action can be taken without a corresponding reaction, and even within the refuge found behind chapel walls, danger and tragedy can threaten. The question becomes, can the catalyst be enough to change Santa Olivia forever?
Anyone who loves Jacqueline Carey’s works simply must read this book. She proves, as she did with her Banewrecker/Godslayer duet, that her talents should not be pigeon-holed in the simple fantasy genre, but in the greater region of sweeping literature. Anyone who could write both cultural epics and this precious of an offering deserves a wide audience.