Emily R. reviews Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

santaolivia Vividly rendered at the intersection of liminal spaces of all kinds, Santa Olivia follows the story of Loup Garron as she comes of age on the Mexican-US border.  Born to a woman and a genetically enhanced soldier, part of a military “werewolf” experiment, Loup inherits some of her father’s abilities. After being orphaned, she is taken in by what is left of the local church along with other children.  Together, they begin to address the wrongs perpetrated by the military on the townspeople. In this dystopia, a DMZ buffer zone was created and all existing towns declared military outposts. Located between countries, in a place the rest of the country was told no longer exists, this is a beautifully austere and gritty novel that delves into moral ambiguity, survival and love with both eyes wide open.

As Loup and other orphans of the town become increasingly aware of the injustices around them in what amounts to a small military dictatorship, her abilities allow them to adopt the identity of a the church’s patron saint, Santa Olivia, known for making peace in a dangerous war zone.  A counter-intuitive choice perhaps, but one that resonates beautifully against the backdrop of stark contrasts in this book. As a team, they begin to right wrongs, and dream of getting out.

Threaded throughout this narrative is the romance between Loup and Pilar.  Sweet, devoted and sensual, Carey weaves an incredibly heartening relationship into an austere landscape of a town that does, and does not, exist, with a wide variety of multi-racial characters fighting not only to survive, but to live.

So many things stand out with this wonderful book, the character development is brilliant and complex, with excellent world building that is one of Carey’s calling cards (see her Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy, set in an alternate Europe complete with sub cultures, political machinations and international policy consequences).  The liberal use of profanity throughout juxtaposes with the luscious writing in a way I can only compare to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Angela Carter’s work. The voices of moral authority in the face of despotism and corruption come from members of the Catholic Church who may or may not be in a relationship and who may or may not have ever been ordained in the first place.  As with so many aspects of this book, sources of authority are treated with extreme cynicism while the heart of the story is about individuals negotiating those systems

Carey not only builds one of the most amazing and delightful relationships between women I’ve ever read, but also takes on questions of power with the character of the physically lush Pilar.  She has access, via her appearance, to power by charming powerful men – and indeed both she and the troupe utilize it as an asset and make no bones about doing so.  It makes for an engaging application of 3rd wave feminism as these characters own their sexuality and make us of all the tools available to them. In addition to sex positivity and agency, several fraught topics are explored in intriguing ways here – including bisexuality, being multi-racial, chosen family, military control, genetic engineering and manipulation, and gender/sexual power dynamics.

This novel is also an interesting critique of the typical super-hero story.  Loup has super speed and strength, and a will to do the right thing – much like most any of your super-hero du jour.  Loup and her cohort have absolutely no privilege and throughout the story, this doesn’t particularly change – it isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American mythos narrative.  Where a more mainstream superhero character would be hyper-masculinized by an inability to feel fear, this trait is constructed as a danger for Loup.  After all, if a child can’t feel fear, how do they begin to develop survival skill around every day dangers like crossing the street?  In a highly feminist move on Carey’s part, Loup may be the muscle behind their vigilantism, but she and her friends must work as a group to protect one another and their town.

Fans of urban fantasy, dark fantasy and dystopia will likely enjoy this work – though it sits solidly in none of these sub-genres and is a very different story than Carey’s earlier work.  For fans of Angela Carter, Catherynne Valente, Seanan Mcguire (penname Mira Grant) and Margaret Atwood, you have been waiting for this genetically-engineered lesbian superhero dystopian werewolf folktale.

Emily works with teens in a library by the sea and is a recovering academic who writes, reads, and thinks mostly about fairy tales, gender, queerness and cats. When not playing minor-key Celtic tunes on her fiddle, she avidly tracks down obscure fairy tale anthologies and has a yarn storage problem for her knitting. As ever, she pursues that culinary Questing Beast, the perfect guacamole.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

Raven Mask is the second in Winter Pennington’s series featuring the adventures of ‘preternatural investigator’ werewolf Kassandra Lyall, and I would most certainly recommend reading the first before the second as Raven Mask picks up fairly seamlessly from where the first novel leaves off. It is, however, an enjoyable romp told with flare and good humour and scattered with a decent number of extremely intense sex scenes which should keep any lover of Sapphic fantasy fiction very happy.

The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and if it occasionally feels somewhat disjointed it’s more than made up for by their being a juicy love scene within the first couple of chapters to wet the reader’s appetite for what’s to come. This is the first of several love scenes between Kassandra and her vampire lover Lenorre scattered throughout the novel, which all manage to be both erotic and entertaining without overcrowding the plot. It’s somewhat unfortunate that here in Britain ‘Lenore’ is actually the name of a leading brand of fabric softener and couldn’t be less vampiric sounding if it tried – but I’m prepared to forgive Pennington that given that this book was clearly written with an American audience in mind.

Kassandra Lyall is a likeable, sympathetic and frequently funny heroine, and Pennington sets her up well amongst a brace of other quirky, intriguing characters – I developed a particular soft spot for the Beta werewolf Rosalin. The cast of vampires, however, feel a little over-egged: I for one think we’ve really moved past the point where blood suckers must all be faux-Gothic cartoons who dress like bastardised Victorians and speaks with British accents. We now live in the age of True Blood and Being Human, after all, and those shows have been so successful at re-popularising vampire fiction because they resist the Anne Rice style of vamp that permeated 80s and 90s cult lit. Pennington might be a little more successful at getting me to take her vampire characters seriously if she wrote them in a style that didn’t feel so dated.

However, I can’t be completely sure she isn’t doing so with a wink and a nod anyway – her tone is characterised by a slightly tongue-in-cheek mischievousness which shows most clearly in Kassandra’s wry wit and commentary on outrageousness of the situations she gets into. Pennington can just about get away with pantomime vampires where a less skilled author wouldn’t, because her narrative voice is so appealing.

Kassandra does occasionally stray into feeling like an insert for Pennington herself, however. Not only is she a gutsy lesbian werewolf, but a Celtic pagan witch with a particular affinity with ravens. This would be fine if the fact of her being a witch had any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but it doesn’t, and left me wondering why such a detail kept being shoe-horned in. Being a Hellenic polytheist myself I wont criticise the respectful inclusion of a Pagan belief system – neo-Pagans are sorely lacking representation in any kind of popular literature – but it does feel somewhat convenient that Pennington’s blurb mentions that she too is a pagan on a Celtic path with a great fondness for ravens and crows. No author separates themselves from their characters entirely, nor should they have to, but the tongue-in-cheek style which allows Pennington to get away with her vampires is missing from her descriptions of Kassandra’s spirituality and that leaves those sections feeling a little forced and out of place. She doesn’t need to be a witch on top of everything else – there’s no benefit to the narrative – and as such Kassandra being a Celtic pagan feels self-indulgent and jars the reader somewhat.

That being said Kassandra remains an appealing narrator and Raven Mask an entertaining novel – highly recommended to anyone looking for a sexy, funny, escapist bit of fluff to bury themselves in for an afternoon.