Thursday, July 5, 2012

Santa Olivia


The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Solid but not ponderous (341 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: May 29, 2009 from Grand Central Publishing
Premise: When disease cuts a swath across Mexico and America, the US Army moves in and declares the town of Santa Olivia a buffer zone: it is to be renamed Outpost Twelve, and no one can leave. In the midst of this dusty prison town, Carmen Garron meets a man who was genetically manipulated to have exceptional strength and speed....as well as a complete lack of fear. Although the man is theoretically sterile, Carmen becomes pregnant just before he is forced to leave before he is caught. Loup Garron, their daughter, grows up to be just as fearless as her father as she tries to hide her differences.
Warnings: one offscreen rape and quite a few threats of it, underage sexuality (mostly between young teenagers of about the same age)
Recommendation: Give this one a try, especially if you've been in a reading rut lately. It hops lightly between many different potential stories and expectations; Carey gives you time to expect that things are going to go one way and then tugs at them to expose all the problems standing in the way of the easy resolution.

The good: 

Outpost Twelve makes a good setting for blending the grittier aspects of reality with moments of myth. The commanding general of the area himself added to that early on in his occupation; he loves to see good boxing, so he brings in Olympic champions to box with the locals. If any local man wins, he gets two tickets out of the Outpost and into the world that has been locked away for so long. All of the locals turn out to cheer each other on, hoping that at least one of them will be able to get free and provide some sliver of optimism that the town has been missing for years. Tom Garron, Loup's older brother, would rather learn how to fight for a chance at freedom than try to get back into school after a display of Loup's speed gets both of them kicked out; he trains every day in the hope of getting his sister into America where scientists might be able to help her, since the genetic manipulation may have shortened her father's lifespan--and hers as well.

Tom makes a great character; he's simultaneously the careful older brother teaching Loup how to be cautious when she can't be afraid and an eager young fighter who just wants to succeed. It would be easy to paint him as shining and flawless, but he's slow at learning to read and arrogant enough to let his ego keep him from making the safe decision sometimes. Despite that, he works hard at the training gym as a cleaner to help pay his way, playing the virtuous poor boy to Miguel Garza's arrogant rich man. 

Miguel himself acts with far less predictability than expected, and it's truly hard to understand him at times; one minute he's insulting Tommy and Loup or trying to blackmail his coach, and the next he's following an obscure code of honor, keeping his word even when it's inconvenient or dangerous. He fills the role of an obnoxious brother-mentor to Loup, and by the end of the book it's clear that a large part of his behavior is because he's trapped in the Outpost with no choice but to live up to--and enhance--his family's reputation for violence and competence. His flaws and moments of virtue combine to create a truly human character, and one not chosen as a love interest at that; it's refreshing to see the rich bad boy onstage without tripping over the ensuing romance.

The actual romantic relationship is far more unusual. Loup tries to be interested in kissing or dating a number of the other orphans, but the genetic modification means that her muscles are extraordinarily dense and ripple unusually, and it turns most people off on an instinctual level. She's mostly resigned herself to it when Pilar, a fellow teenage orphan, kisses her in consolation and the two find themselves touching constantly. Pilar was molested by her uncle before she came to the orphanage and draws male attention even at the age of thirteen, planning to marry someone from one of the rich families and secure the most pampered possible life in town. Something about Loup, however, makes her want to touch and never stop, to care for her and feed her; Loup may be fearless and have to remind herself to be careful, but Pilar is afraid of everything even to the point of shying away from happiness because of the pain when it ends. She's also worried about what people might say, but apart from some catcalls that concern is a distant second to how they can stay together with different goals. It's really refreshing to see a lesbian relationship in this genre that's just....a relationship between people, not destiny or proof of something or a prelude to someone dying a martyr's death; these two feel real, and it's hard not to root for them even when they're acting like the dumb teenagers they are.

Jacqueline Carey's lush and leisurely style runs through her Kushiel's Legacy series and The Sundering Duology, but she manages to pull off smooth economy of detail here really brilliantly. The transition from America as we know it to a military outpost where most of the residents have never driven in a car happens with incredible swiftness, bundled up in the horror of disease and of supposed attacks from Mexican terrorists. Despite that, the setting seems natural almost immediately. The people who chose to stay were old and tired, or had nowhere else to go, or simply didn't want to leave home, and that quiet weariness spreads through all of their actions. People will start turf wars or compete for luxuries, but hanging over that it is the inescapable fact that they will probably never leave the town again. These people are living in a military town, cut off from the technology and information that they used to have, and everyone knows that the only way out is almost impossible. Some of the more talented orphans know that they'll never go to medical school; everyone is willing to settle for whatever snatches of happiness they can find while working dead-end menial jobs. Many of the women are trading sex and company for allowances from the soldiers, but since the soldiers cannot marry anyone local, the hope of being able to hold onto even a stable family is slim.

The relationships throughout the novel really reflect that, both in the way people find unusual happy niches and the way they keep hunting without success. Carey somehow manages to have a fake priest, a fake nun, and a female teacher in a low-key polyamorous relationship without turning it into anything resembling fetish fuel; the potential for scandal and whispering there is immense, but only the teenage orphans seem to focus on it. The three of them are happy together, even though Anna lost all her friends by going into the relationship, and they simply work together to keep the church functioning. The orphans and people of the Outpost are far less secure, pulling themselves into relationships for affection or money or security, dating almost as a form of entertainment because there is so little else to do in the town. That pattern of people getting together and breaking up makes Loup's half-hearted attempts at normal relationships before she finds Pilar all the more poignant; everyone else can be happy at least for a little while, but just touching her unnerves even her friends.

What makes the book great is the way Loup's fearless determination interacts with the town's barely-hopeful weariness. She wants to make a difference on her own terms, for the sake of her brother and the town. She doesn't fear pain or being taken captive, which makes her the perfect person to step into the center of danger; for her, the glory of victory is almost irrelevant compared to what she can do to show that the military doesn't control as much as it thinks it does. Without fear and dread, she can't be as beaten down as everyone else is, but the sorrows of death tend to hit her harder than they hit others; Mack, one of the orphans, points out that when a dog is hurt it curls up to either recover or die. Loup copes along similar lines, withdrawing into numbness for the big things and simply shrugging the little ones off. Her grit pulls her forward, and without the fear of failure she's free to pour her whole self into succeeding and challenging others to act as decisively as she does. A woman without fear can't be easy to write, but I truly believed this one; speed and strength and fearlessness can't protect her from heartbreak or friends dying or other pain.

The red pen: 

Some of the worldbuilding that's absolutely necessary to establish the mood and setting causes problems in different ways. Carmen herself is all right, but once we meet Pilar later in the book, she starts to seem like what Carmen should have or could have been; Carmen is steadier, but she's also coping with children and death at a younger age. More importantly, she just feels oddly flat. Hearing that "a little bird in her heart uttered a single warbling note and died" makes her seem more like the thwarted heroine of a musical than a woman having real struggles. Once her children are born she seems even more hollow, existing to simply live through each day in Outpost Twelve. She doesn't have to occupy a central emotional role, but she's an important figure and there's barely any indication that her children miss her when she's gone. I would have liked to have seen more of what gave her the passion that Pilar had, what made her willing to risk her safety and a secure future for someone who isn't fully human.

The timeline setup also gets choppy at times, sliding over several years in a page without working much on the transitions. The moments when Loup is living with the Santitos and feeling like part of her own dysfunctional family are great, but there's so little space between each significant conversation or plan that when Loup said that she missed "the old days" it's hard to relate, since the reader barely has an idea of what they were like. That sort of compact structure admittedly does a good job of emphasizing how every day is so much the same that it takes a major event to really jump out of the flow. Unfortunately, it also means that some of the more character-based plot twists seem to come slamming up out of nowhere after an uneventful interlude. Things involving the army or the prize fights are set up quite well, but when characters make dramatic decisions it can feel like they didn't think it over because the reader has no idea what was going on. A setting like this is rich enough to support more time building detail, and jamming the fast-forward button so often takes away from that.

This ties into another problem, namely that some of the minor characters--particularly the orphans-- blend together. We're introduced to them in a bunch without much time to get to know any of them, so it's easy to separate them as "the scary one" or "that one with a crush on Loup" or "the mean girl who cusses a lot" without thinking of them as people. This works fine for the few chapters of unbroken orphanage life, but later on those distinguishing traits have faded and it's hard to care about each one as an individual. Similarly, the various gangsters tend to fall into the background and blur together. It would be less bothersome if they were all living in a conventional town, but one character mentions that he wants women who he hasn't known since he was five, emphasizing that this is a really small town and everyone knows everyone. Gossip travels so quickly that tracing its path could have given a sense of the community as a whole, but too often they seem to be a faceless mass with occasional people showing up to be the face of a particular group.

All in all, though, I really enjoyed this one and thought it was a great change of pace. Outpost Twelve is a militaristic near-dystopia....but it's very close to our own time and feels depressingly believable. Loup is effectively a mutant, but there's no elaborate sequence of her discovering her powers for the first time; they're simply always part of her. The boxing story has all the hallmarks of an underdog triumphant story, but it's much more grim and the victory lacks the normal gloss. Jacqueline Carey has essentially pulled a bunch of worn-out tropes together into something new and fun, and I'm interested in keeping an eye out for her next projects.

Prospects: The sequel, Saints Astray, came out last November. I've heard mixed reviews of it, but it's on my list to read one day if only to catch up with the characters. Carey also has a book called Dark Currents coming out in October.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~You know, I'm not sure what to compare this one to. Some of Loup's later arc is reminiscent of V for Vendetta, and her calm determination carries echoes of the protagonist in the Kushiel's Legacy series. Carey excels at making her lead characters feel different from each other, but there's a bright thread of persistence in all of them. 

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