I find myself wanting to give Saints Astray two different ratings: one for how happy I am for its heroines, Loup Garron and Pilar Ecchevarria, and the other for how well Saints Astray works as a novel. I love the characters and am glad their lives have become easier since the events of Santa Olivia, but the result is a book that does not have enough tension or conflict.
Loup and Pilar have escaped Outpost and travel to Mexico, where they enjoy a brief idyll in the company of Loup's relatives on her late father's side, many of them genetically modified organisms (GMOs) like Loup. Then they take jobs with an elite bodyguard service and travel the world in the company of a string of wealthy clients: a fashion designer, a Mafia bride, a businessman, a rock band. Later they return to the States to rescue a friend, and become involved in a political battle for the rights of GMOs. All the while, they are adorably in love.
The problem is that there's not much grit or real adversity. Even when situations do look dire, they tend to be resolved much more smoothly and easily than expected. The bodyguarding adventures are fun, but they feel episodic rather than connected to the main plot arc -- and we're seldom really worried about our heroines. The novel becomes more moving when the girls return to the US, where Loup is considered "stolen military property" rather than a human being. That too, however, is a less insurmountable problem than it might appear. Favorite characters can start to feel like old friends, so it feels somehow wrong to wish more trouble on Loup and Pilar, but Saints Astray simply doesn't continue the level of tension established in Santa Olivia.
The best stuff here is character-related. Loup is noble and fierce, but I want to give a special shout-out to Pilar. Jacqueline Carey is great at subverting expected character types. We've seen it in the KUSHIEL'S LEGACY and NAAMAH novels with characters like Barquiel L'Envers and Balthasar Shahrizai, who turn out to be nobler than you might guess from their snarky disposition and decadence, respectively. Pilar is a busty, flirty girl who likes pretty clothes and has a sexual history, and in a hundred other books she'd be the mean girl or the comic relief. Instead she's Loup's girlfriend and co-heroine, and much braver than she thinks she is. The two girls face the same situations, but unlike Loup, Pilar can feel fear and doesn't have superpowers. My two favorite passages in Saints Astray both center on Pilar: first, when she struggles in bodyguard boot camp and discovers new strengths within herself; and second, when she takes a courageous stand during the latter events of the book.
Saints Astray is fun but lacks the darkness that made Santa Olivia compelling. With less tension and danger built into the story, the triumphs don't resonate as strongly this time around. Yet the leads are still lovable and there's something to be said for savoring their new, less desperate lives.