Jacqueline Carey's new novel is set in a near-future DMZ between America and Mexico - and her new heroine kicks ass. Superstrong and unable to feel fear, Loup is a genetic experiment gone right.
Bestselling fantasy author Carey, creator of the "Kushiel's Legacy" series, has turned to post-apocalyptic scifi in new novel Santa Olivia, and it's truly a pleasure to read. Fans of her Kushiel books will recognize some of the themes that have often preoccupied her, such as the orphan seeking justice and a hero whose greatest strength is some kind of weird emotional quirk. In the Kushiel series, hero Phedre has the odd power of converting her own physical pain to pleasure, enabling her to endure situations few other humans could.
Like Phedre, the mutant Loup is immune to feelings that hold other people back. Because she's been engineered not to feel fear, she's also peculiarly unaffected by embarrassment and threats. When bullies make fun of her, she doesn't care. And when she's told (often incorrectly) that she can't do something, she tries it anyway. Without fear, insults and condescension simply lose their power. Carey treats this rather cliched superpower in an intriguingly original way, and shows how it is in some sense the perfect cure for the humiliations and setbacks of teenage girlhood. The subversive implication here is that if teenage girls could just be fearless, they might really take over the world. Or at least, they might try to do it more often.
Santa Olivia is set in a Texas border town that finds itself between two vast walls erected by the US government to stop plagues from percolating up from Mexico. After the plagues die down, however, the government manufactures a nebulous terrorist threat from Mexico to justify maintaining the walls. Loup's town is converted into a secret military outpost, and its inhabitants who cannot afford to move away are tolerated there although they're given very little money and resources to survive.
All that remains of the crumbling town's social structure are three things: A nightclub, the church, and the boxing gym. Loup's mother died when she was young, so she has gone to live with the orphans at the church; meanwhile her doting older brother Tommy lives at the local boxing gym, scrubbing out bathrooms and training to become a boxer. The local military leadership has promised the people of Outpost that if one of them can beat the military boxers, that the lucky winner will get two tickets out of town, beyond the walls.
While Tommy strives to become the winning boxer, bringing pride back to the town, Loup strives to save the town in a different way. Her fellow orphans, who dub themselves the Santitos, want to turn her into a superhero. They have an old stack of X-Men comics in the church basement, and there are several funny scenes where they discuss whether Loup's power is like Wolverine's (she says her powers are "good" but not "super"). Eventually they hatch a plan to mete out justice by turning Loup into the embodiment of the town's patron saint, Olivia.
But that's just the beginning of Loup's career as the town's secret superhero. She later trains as a boxer, in a series of intense scenes that reminded me of the best parts of the film Million Dollar Baby. For anyone who loves an ass-kicking, kind-hearted heroine, Santa Olivia will pack a major punch, combining comic book lore with the exhilaration of girl jock triumph.
Though Loup is far from a tragic hero, Carey is unafraid to explore her flaws. A lack of fear makes her somewhat "slow," as she puts it, unable to learn from scary experiences the way most humans do. When she's burned by something as a baby, she's not afraid to get burned again. Learning not to do dangerous things is horribly difficult for her.
On the other hand, typical teenage experiences of excruciating embarrassment leave Loup untouched. When she's called stupid and a slut by other girls, she just shrugs it off. She's not afraid of what those terms imply. And later, because this is a Carey novel after all, she'll embrace her sexuality in a way that is both unconventional and completely hot - as well as romantic, of course. Loup is truly a superhero for the twenty-first century, dealing with contemporary politics and social concerns.
Most of all, she's an engaging character who forms complicated, warm, and realistic friendships with the people around her. She's the perfect centerpiece for a cast of characters whose lives illustrate what could easily happen to communities on the US/Mexico border in the near future. Carey is fond of writing series, so here's hoping that Loup's quest for justice isn't over quite yet. She overcomes some obstacles in this novel, but we're left wanting her to overcome more - and to seek justice and community in the world beyond the walls surrounding Outpost.