First off, don’t read the back cover, and if you do, don’t believe it. You’ll come away with the impression that it’s about a werewolf vigilante, which — haha, no. None of the above. Thank you for playing.
It’s set in a small town called Santa Olivia near the Mexico border, and the story kicks off with the American military rolling in and declaring that, as part of the ongoing war with Mexico, that whole strip of territory is being declared a buffer zone, no longer part of the United States, and that anyone who chooses to remain in the town rather than evacuating is forfeiting their American citizenship. Well, being as that’s home, inevitably some people choose to stay, and this is about them and their descendants.
In its atmosphere, it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale and Arslan. Although it’s certainly a different type of dystopia, one of benign neglect rather than active oppression, you get the same sense of powerlessness, of being trapped, of being kept in a prisoner’s ignorance and isolation. The world beyond the walls may be going about its business as usual, but to the residents of Santa Olivia it might as well have ceased to exist. (And to the younger residents of the town, it never did exist.)
It’s one thing to write a dystopia where the abuse is overt and its effects obvious. It’s something else entirely (and something far more interesting) to write a place where the oppression is more subtle, and it takes a long time before you realize how deep the ramifications run.
So that takes care of setting — characters?
I LOVED EVERYBODY.
There are no one-dimensional bad guys here. Even the characters who are antagonistic are rarely doing so out of malice, you can see their motivations.
The locals have a complicated relationship with the soldiers occupying their town, but the soldiers are shown as individuals too — some are nice and some are assholes — not just a faceless mass of military.
All of the “good” guys also have their full complement of flaws and idiosyncracies. They can be prickly, or possessive, or dishonest, or codependent, or have very mercenary ideas about sex, or just be an asshole most of the time. (Oh, Miguel, you’re my favorite.) Nobody is perfect, but everyone elicits your sympathy.
Kept me going from beginning to end, so. Halfway through it becomes about not-what-you-thought-it-was-about. If I told you, it would sound improbable, but it works. Has its “WHOA SHIT!” moments, and going in the endgame, I really had no idea what to expect.
Lovely. Also, lesbian. Also, hot. Carey writes romance beautifully, exactly the way I like to read it. The emotional arc is fully developed and we get to watch it unfold the whole way, none of this “happening offstage” bullshit that gay romances so often get saddled with in deference to heterosexual sensibilities. It gets the emotional build-up it deserves, and it gets the emotional payoff too — it gets the Big Scene where the characters go out on a limb, wear their hearts on their sleeve, all that grand passion.
That gets taken for granted in straight romances — that the author is going to go there, going to show that, going to respect the relationship and give it all the emotional impact they can pour into it — but it’s seen a hell of a lot less often in gay romances. My hat goes off to you, Jacqueline Carey.
Okay, that was a more reasoned review than I thought I’d be able to do.
I’ve realized I’m not so good at writing about the books that I truly adore, because when I get into a book that intensely, it disables the analytical portion of my brain. I walk away with an overwhelming sense of “It was awesome in every way~~!” and I’m pretty much incapable of seeing the book’s weaknesses. If someone points them out to me later I’m likely to either disagree about it being a flaw, or disregard the flaw as unimportant, because obviously the book worked so well overall that it doesn’t matter.
(Which is why Sarah Monette’s Melusine-&-sequels break my brain, because they are SO GOOD, and I get into them SO HARD, but even I have to acknowledge the weaknesses. It makes for cognitive dissonance like whoa.)
In any case, that’s the highest praise I can bestow on a book — that it hijacked my ability to analyze it.