Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Santa Olivia

If someone had told me that one of my favorite books of the year would have a major theme involving boxing, I would have been extremely skeptical. That has got to be my least favorite sport - something I have never been able to appreciate at all. But this book will definitely be on my list of favorite 2009 reads - I can say that with confidence, even though the year is barely halfway over.

So. Imagine a world in which the population has been decimated by incurable illness. In the areas along the Mexican border, people are desperately trying to immigrate to the United States in the hope of better medical treatment. But the U.S. is struggling to take care of its own citizens, and on top of everything else, there is a military threat from Mexico that also must be dealt with. The decision is made to construct walls and create zones that are basically a no man's land - people who were once U.S. citizens, residents of Texas (at least those without the means and/or foresight to get out in time) are now residents of nowhere, stuck in a small town, forgotten by the rest of the country, with no rights, under military rule, and never allowed to leave.

This is the world of Carmen Garron, a woman who remembers better times but is stuck in the no man's land of small-town Santa Olivia. She has lost most of her family due to the illness, but she and her sister have survived. She has relationships with some of the occupying soldiers, and finally falls in love with a handsome young boxer and soon finds herself expecting a child. When the young man dies before the child - Tommy - is even born, Carmen is left alone once again. It isn't until much later that she meets a man, a fugitive, who clearly has unusual abilities. And from their union Loup, the heroine of the novel, is born. She has inherited her father's abilities - among them are incredible strength and an inability to feel fear - and in a town like Santa Olivia, she's going to need them. But if the army discovers who she is and where she came from, she knows she'll become one of the many "disappeared."

There is one very slim hope for the people of Santa Olivia. The leader of the occupying army is a huge boxing fan, and he has proclaimed that, should one of the townspeople manage to beat one of his soldiers in a boxing match, the prize will be tickets to the U.S. and freedom. Tommy, who has inherited his father's boxing skill, is determined to be the one to win his freedom. But that is a long and difficult road for a young teenage boy, but he finds a way to train and also to keep Loup's secret safe.

I hesitate to say much more about the book for fear of giving away too much. I read the book after having heard it was a new standalone novel, without even reading the back of the because I loved Carey's Kushiel books so much. That was a great way to approach this powerful novel. Loup is an unforgettable heroine, and in many ways the book is a coming of age story, albeit one with fantasy and science fiction elements and a most unusual background. The is some strong language at times, but to me it seemed natural to the tone and characters of the book. The characterization is fabulous. Loup, her mother and brother and their relationship is emotionally compelling, but it was the secondary characters that really blew me away. Tommy's boxing nemesis, self-involved bully Miguel Garza, was my favorite of those, along with Loup's friend Pilar. They are complex and full of surprises.

This book has elements of folk-hero escapades, superhero hijinks, underdog sports sagas, and is set against a dark, post-apocalyptic backdrop where tragedy is an inextricable part of everyday life. I was so involved in this riveting tale that even though our flight to Florida was canceled and I ended up sitting in the very back row of the airplane, separated from my family, stuck between two enormous heavyset snoring men (thank you, US Airways!), I was actually disappointed when the plane landed and I had to stop reading with only a few chapters to go. This one has my highest recommendation.

Here's a very interesting interview at SciFiGuy's blog - with some tidbits about a possible sequel that sounds like it will be a lot of fun!

Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
In Bed with Books: "Carey developed a harsh setting, but she populated it with motivated and good-hearted characters. (Not to say there aren't those who aren't filled with spite and ruin things for other people.)"
Experiments in Reading: "Carey brings together seemingly random elements--boxing, religious icons, cute girls, and basically what amounts to superpowers--and makes it work. The story was great, and I found myself caught up in Loup's struggles."
SciFiGuy: "Although I would hesitate to fit this into a genre box, urban fantasy fans will not be disappointed with the central heroine or the small but important role Loup’s preternatural abilities play in the story."


  1. Thanks for this review and reminding me of this book! I had meant to get it and it fell off my radar, but it looks so good. I'd forgotten about the whole military rule part.

  2. Oh man. I am totally going to have to read this. How could I not, with a recommendation like that from you?

  3. CJ - I'll be interested to hear what you think of it!

    Kiirstin - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did (and that you don't have to read it sandwiched between two people on a plane - but if you do, this is the book to have!) :)

  4. AnonymousJuly 22, 2009

    Ooooh Good!!! I just barely finished KUSHIEL'S DART and I just read the first couple pages of SANTA OLIVIA. I'm so glad you liked it; that probably means I will, too. I don't like knowing the ending of a story (or movie) but I do like knowing it's worthwhile. Makes the tension and the scary parts bearable, LOL!

  5. Fuzzycricket - I hope you enjoy it! I read the first Kushiel trilogy and loved them, but I haven't read past that. So I think I'll do a reread and continue on with the series. I'll be looking forward to your review!

  6. This book seems INTERESTING! Thanks for the book idea :)

  7. I have had this book in my hands three times trying to decide if I want to read it. You sold me seeing as how you are my 'reading twin'. :)

  8. Margo - I know I always say this, but I think you'd like it!

    Kailana - I love having a reading twin. :-) Can't wait to hear what you think of it!

  9. I haven't heard of this book yet! Thanks for the review and because you liked it and don't like boxing, I may have to try this out...since I too am not fond of boxing.

  10. Serena - Oh, I hope you'll give this one a try. I was singing its praises at work, and one of my coworkers took the bait (mwahaha!). I saw her today, and she told me she loved the book, too. For what that's worth. :-)

  11. Thanks for quoting my review! This is a wonderful review of a fabulous book.

  12. Liviania - My pleasure! I enjoyed reading your review, and I'm glad you enjoyed this wonderful book, too.


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