2009’s Santa Olivia is the first volume in Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia series.
Loup Garron grew up in the isolated garrison town of Santa Olivia (or as the occupying troops call it, Outpost 12), in a buffer zone established to protect the US from the semi-mythical Mexican warlord El Segundo and from the waves of lethal disease still sweeping across the world. For Loup, all this seems normal … as is the fact that she is an orphan. All too many of Santa Olivia’s children have lost parents to disease or to rocket attacks launched by unseen enemies.
What isn’t normal is Loup herself.
Loup’s father didn’t stay in Santa Olivia long — only long enough to fall in love with Loup’s mother and to get her pregnant with Loup. He couldn’t stay: he was a Lost Boy , the product of an illicit genetic engineering program. His only choices were to submit to life as the property of the US government  or to flee into Mexico. He fled. Loup never met her father, but she did inherit his illicit modifications: enhanced strength and speed.
Oh, and an inability to feel fear. Her father’s creators felt that fearlessness would be an asset for super-soldiers (not so much for the soldiers as for their owners). In reality, fearlessness translates into a foolhardy absence of caution. That’s only one of the factors that tend to make Loup’s kind shorter-lived than baseline humans.
For Loup, reasonable caution will always be a conscious choice, not a matter of instinct. It’s good that she has a half-brother, Tommy, who can provide the prudence genetics has denied her.
For the soldiers based in Outpost 12, the town seems a handy source of booze, hookers, and victims. For the residents of Santa Olivia, trapped in the buffer zone, it is purgatory. Until a ray of hope glimmers: a bold avenger who punishes military transgressions, an avenger who wears the guise of Santa Olivia, the namesake saint of the town.
When I asked for suggestions of superhero books, this was one of the suggestions. It can certainly be read that way. However, unlike a few other superheroes, Loup is savvy enough to know that she needs her own Scoobie Gang if she is to be safe and effective. She also understands that a distinctive costume could be evidence of her exploits. Costumes have to be temporary, jettisoned after use.
Sadly, Loup does run afoul of the rule that masked avengers and romance are immiscible. Curse you, long-standing narrative tropes! For some series protagonists, new romantic partners appear like clockwork, as soon as the previous partner leaves or dies horrifically. Loup doesn’t forget. If she and her girlfriend break up, then Loup won’t, can’t, move on to her next lover. It’s Pilar or it’s nobody.
It isn’t clear what is happening in the big world outside Santa Olivia. This is not because this is a Snow Globe Setting, one that will implode if the author ever acknowledges the wider world. It’s government policy; if no one can leave the zone, then it is easier to keep up the fiction that the zone exists to protect the US from El Segundo. This seems reasonable, but … as recent events have shown, US politicians do not need a Mexican bandido to scare Americans into accepting some extreme restrictions where the US/Mexican border is concerned. Oh, well. 2009 was a more innocent time.
Another (and I think more accurate) way to look at this book is as a boxing story. General Argyle (a casually misogynistic brute who colludes with local gangsters to terrorize the Santa Olivians) is also a huge boxing fan. He sponsors regular boxing matches between army champions and ambitious locals. The prizes are large enough that financially desperate locals can always be found to step into the ring. Loup steps up to the challenge.
Like a boxing story, unlike a superhero story, Loup has to work to be the person she wants to be. She needs skill as well as strength and fearlessness. Fortunately, she’s willing to put in the years of hard practice that turn her into an effective avenger … and boxer.
I don’t know if this has ever been optioned for a film, but I bet if the novel survived the transformation into movie in anything like its original form, it could be a modern Rocky.
There is a second novel in this series, 2011’s Saints Astray . Rather annoyingly, the local library does not have a copy. Bah. And apparently it had one but it vanished. Double bah.
1: Thanks, I think, to a constitutional amendment stripping GMO humans of their rights. There is a lot of work involved in passing a constitutional amendment; I wonder how this one got passed?