When I read Kushiel's Dart in 2005 I was very much impressed with the mix of history and fantasy Carey put into her story. Unfortunately none of the subsequent Kushiel books managed to reach that level (although I haven't read her latest effort Namaah's Kiss yet). Earlier this summer Santa Olivia, novel that is not related the the Kushiel series, was published. It is in fact quite different from everything else Carey has written. Santa Olivia is a fairly short novel set in a near future town of the Texan-Mexican border. I was very much impressed with style in which this novel is written. It's the best book by Carey I have read so far.
The cause of the situation that the town of Santa Olivia finds itself in remain unclear in the novel. What we do know is that Mexico is highly unstable, violence and disease kill large numbers of people. The US government decided to close the border entirely. The inhabitants of Santa Olivia are given the choice. Head north to the US or stay and end up in a no man's land, guarded by a large military base in the area. Many people have nowhere to go and so they remain in the town. Cut off from and forgotten by the rest of the US the town is entirely dependant on the military base for supplies. Electricity becomes scares, cars can't be maintained, air-conditioning becomes to expensive to run, education is reduced to the very basics, in short the town is slowly falling apart. Many dream of escape but to prevent the condition of Santa Olivia becoming well known, nobody is allowed out.
In this town Carmen tries to raise her two children. Tommy, son of one of the soldiers of the base who like so many of his comrades has a local sweetheart, and Loup, daughter of a military man on the run. Part of a genetic experiment he's part wolf much stronger than a normal man and is incapable of feeling fear. Traits his daughter will develop as well. Both Carmen's children turn out to offer the town hope of release from their situation. The odds they face are overwhelming however, the deck is stacked against them. When Tommy finds out how far the commander of the base will go to keep the secret, Loup is left behind alone and more determined than ever to beat the odds.
There's an awful lot to like about this novel. It's surprising in many ways. You'd expect a fairly conservative community but the people of Santa Olivia display a very high level of pragmatism. Society does not break down, no fights erupt about the scarce resources. The threat of military intervention should riots break out keep the town reasonably save. Many people do the best they can even though they are not strictly speaking qualified for the job. Where many stories that display this level of post apocalyptic events see society fall apart completely, Santa Olivia maintains a sense of community that keeps society running on a basic level.
The language Carey uses is fairly direct, with a lot of dialogue and riddled with profanity, a great deal different from the flowery speech of the D'Angeline characters in the Kushiel series. It suits the main characters, who never had much of an education, pretty well. The book is written in the third person but you could almost believe it being their narrative. This style keeps the book, that is set over a period of several decades, moving at a fast pace.
Carey also does some very interesting things with Loup. She does not feel fear and therefore responds quite differently to situations than we would. Fear is not a consideration in any of her actions and while Tommy did his best to make sure she considers the consequences before she acts, Loup still does things we wouldn't even consider. The most interesting interaction that shows Loup's lack of fear is her relationship with Miguel Garza. As the son of one of the more powerful characters in the town, Miguel is used to bully and intimidate. None of which works on Loup. It exposes a side of Miguel's character not many people get to see. Carey also uses her inhuman strength and fearlessness as a contrast with the patron saint of the town, the child Santa Olivia.
Carey obviously chose to write something different from what she's know for and the result turned out very well indeed. Santa Olivia is book that is very hard to include in a genre. I've seen it called science fiction or urban fantasy, some drew a parallel with superhero comics and others even wondered if it was meant to be young adult (given the content I'd say no). Personally I think it has a distinct post-apocalyptic flavour. Whatever genre you put it in the result is a great read. Do not expect the rich, erotic fantasy of the Kushiel series however. I certainly hope Carey will keep on writing other books besides Kushiel. While I see the (economic) appeal of keeping that series going, a fresh start in a new setting obviously did her writing a world of good. This book may well end up on my best of 2009 list.
Title: Santa Olivia
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First published: 2009