I’m not actually sure if Santa Olivia (2009) is technically a fantasy novel. The heroine, Loup Garron, has unusual abilities, but she gets them by way of genetic engineering, not magic (her father was a top-secret military experiment). However, if you’re a fantasy fan, don’t let this dissuade you! There’s plenty here for a fantasy reader to love. Santa Olivia is a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about being a misfit; it’s a story about an underdog up against towering odds; it’s a love story; it’s a hero(ine)’s journey story.
Santa Olivia is set in southern Texas in a bleak, plague-ravaged near future. The military has taken over the area, supposedly to protect the citizens from a shadowy external threat. Poverty and crime are rampant. Into this setting comes Loup, who rises from humble beginnings to become a symbol of hope and freedom for the downtrodden people of the town of Santa Olivia. Caution: you may find yourself cheering aloud! Despite the very different settings, I was sometimes reminded of Donna Gillespie’s The Light Bearer as I read Santa Olivia; the two books brought out the same pumping-my-fist-in-the-air impulse in me.
Fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels will not be surprised that the love story in Santa Olivia is sensual, touching, and bittersweet. Loup and her lover are painfully “real” to me in their trials and tribulations. Both characters have made very specific plans for the future, and both find that their relationship complicates those plans more than they ever imagined.
I should also mention that Carey sets herself a hard task and does it well. One of Loup’s special qualities is that she does not feel fear. It can’t have been easy to write almost all of the novel from the perspective of someone who simply isn’t ever afraid (even when the reader is nailbiting on her behalf)!
I could not put Santa Olivia down, and I highly recommend it. It had me on the edge of my seat, and while I was already a Jaqueline Carey fan, it has given me even more respect for her abilities. This is completely different from anything she’s done before, and it’s darn good.