Santa Olivia was one of the surprises of 2009 to me. Published in 2009 between Kushiel's Mercy, the final volume in her Imriel trilogy, and Naamah's Kiss, the first in the Moirin trilogy, it broke away from the rich fantasy setting of the Kushiel series and introduced a bleak, near future setting with a distinct post-apocalyptic feel to it. A break from fantasy clearly did Carey good. It was fresh, interesting and surprisingly successful. Obliviously there had to be a sequel. Carey delivered the manuscript for this sequel pretty soon after the publication of Santa Olivia but had to wait for a publication slot to open up in the publisher's schedule. Almost two and a half years after Santa Olivia, the sequel Saints Astray was published. It turned out to be a lot lighter read than Santa Olivia in many ways.
After their escape from Outpost no. 12, or Santa Olivia as the town used to be called, Loup and Pilar make their way to Mexico City were various people are interested in talking to them. A US senator looking into the Outpost situation, their existence is still being denied by the military, wants them to testify when he has gathered enough proof. Loup also receives an offer to work as a body guard, for which her superhuman strength and speed make her supremely suited. After a visit to her cousins in Mexico, Loup and Pilar decide to accept that offer but despite the luxury and glamour of their new life, the plight of the people in Santa Olivia and Loup's genetically manipulated cousins keeps drawing their attention. Something must be done to rectify that situation.
Santa Olivia was a pretty dark novel. It portrayed the poverty and severe shortages as well as abuse of power in the confined setting of this one small community. In Saints Astray the whole wide world opens up to Loup and Pilar. Girls who have never experienced any kind of luxury, suddenly find themselves in a world where a lot is possible. What's more, they quickly acquire the means to enjoy these luxuries and are not afraid to spend their money, or anybody else's for that matter. It gives the whole novel a bit of an air of wish fulfilment.
Something that adds to this is their new career in security. Having the only genetically modified bodyguard in the business does not come cheap and soon Loup and Pilar are introduced into the world haute couture, rock stars and spoilt little rich girls. Unsurprisingly, the two turn out to be very good at their job. I must admit the was the story unfolded in the opening chapters of the novel is so predictable I feared the worst for this novel. Things get a bit better when Loup develops a kind of celebrity of her own. Attention that will help her bring the injustice of the situation in Santa Olivia and her own precarious legal status in the US to light.
Somewhere around the halfway point of the novel, it clearly shifts into a more serious mode. We leave the big spending, glamorous secret agent part of the novel behind and move into territory that is a bit more science fictional. The US is portrayed as a fairly closed country. One that, after the pandemic that swept across the world decades earlier, is still ruled by paranoia and where state security is seen as a great excuse to cover up all sorts of dubious practices. It could be seen as criticism of the way security in a post 9/11 world is seen as an excuse to curtail all kinds of liberties. Loup's own legal status is perhaps even more interesting. It delves into the question if one can actually own DNA (or the patent to genetic alterations I suppose). There have been science fiction novels that dig a lot deeper into this. Most notable is probably Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Carey mostly uses this matter to turn Loup's situation into a civil rights struggle but the consequences of considering DNA property go far beyond that.
Although not a particularly challenging read, there is only one thing that really bothers me about Saints Astray and that is the relationship between Loup and Pilar. Both of them seem to be in need of constant confirmation that the other still loves them. it's a scene that, in one guise or another, returns frequently. In fact, just about every time a remotely attractive secondary character shows up. Their love for each other is then confirmed in a round of spectacular sex which, in case you are wondering, is not described explicitly. For that you really want the Kushiel novels. It sounds like the two of them have a lot of fun confirming their love for each other but I don't think the reader needs to hear about it quite so often.
I didn't enjoy Saints Astray as much as I did Santa Olivia. As a sequel, this novel comes with expectations the first novel was not burdened with and it simply does not live up to mine. That being said, if you take this novel for what it is, a light, somewhat fluffy read, it is not a bad read. This novel is fun in the way a James Bond movie is fun. Not because it is realistic but because it's an entertaining bit of daydreaming. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for, Saints Astray will work very well.
Title: Saints Astray
Author: Jaqueline Carey
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First published: 2011