Robin McKinley always manages to write magic. Her words flow across the page and transport you to another world, usually a world of fairytale adventure. This time, there's a twist. in Sunshine, she's writing about vampires.
Your protagonist is Rae. She is not Buffy, your popular cheerleader turned scourge of the undead. She is not Anita, your repressed and sarcastic quick-shooter. She's a baker, and content with getting up at four in the morning to make the cinnamon rolls.
Or so she keeps telling herself.
Her stepfather started calling her Sunshine before he was even her stepfather, and somehow the nickname stuck. She hasn't spent much time with her birth-father, has had little contact with his family, and doesn't really think about him much.
He was a sorcerer. Should we mention that?
Robin McKinley draws us into a world of magical warfare, but shapes that world closely to our own. The events of the story take place not long after a big vampire/human war. It's a world where vampires still threaten to take over, where demons and magic are commonplace, but also feared. It's a world where cars come with charms against theft and breakdown, standard.
This particular book is very different from McKinley's other works in that it is in no way intended for younger readers. There are moments of sexual tension, crude language, and gory violence smattered into the narrative, which on occasion seemed an odd fit with McKinley's prose. McKinley has maintained her incredible knack for descriptive language and fully, at times too fully, fleshes out the world she's created.
The book is written in first person, from Rae's point of view. We learn a lot about what Rae thinks of the world, about her strained relationship with her mother, about her casual-seeming four year relationship with the biker/cook Mel, and her obsession with "Other" activity. (Basically "Other" is a catch-all term for vampires, demons, etc.) Her life revolves around those she works with at the family business, and she seems to like it that way.
Rae's quiet life is thrown into upheaval when she's kidnapped by vampires, and chained to the wall of an abandoned house. There is a vampire, also a prisoner, chained to the other wall. He's starving. He can reach her. She's been left there as food. But he doesn't drink her; he helps her survive the night. And then he asks her to talk him through the day.
In order to escape, Rae must remember the magic she's forgotten she even learned, and do things that should be impossible for even the best trained magic-users. She also needs to ally herself with what in her world is the most hated of all creatures, a vampire. This begins the strained and strange relationship between Rae and Con (the vampire) which hints at romance, but never quite delivers.
Due in no small part to the strange nature of Rae's power, a mystical bond is formed between Rae and Con. I found one of Rae's thoughts on the matter particularly interesting. In this world some magic-users have an affinity for a particular element, for example water. This means they also have a controlling or suppressing effect on the opposing element -- magic-users with an affinity for water make good fire-fighters. Rae is unusual in that, as we learn through her early struggles with her talent, her affinity is for sunlight. So the opposing element for sunlight would be, to stretch a point, vampires. Or perhaps the darkness within vampires.
It's impossible not to make comparisons. Having one good vampire in the horde of evil ones is very reminiscent of Angel in the Buffy series. Rae being hassled by the special police unit as her powers emerge echoes the difficulties Anita faced, as does the bond Rae's power fosters with her undead companion. One of the flaws in McKinley's book is that readers have seen many of the same issues she raises in this novel worked through with satisfactory conflicts and resolutions in these other series, a result which is much more difficult to achieve in a single book.
Actually, McKinley's novel works so hard at creating this world and these conflicts, and leaves so much unfinished, unexplored, or unresolved, that it makes the book seem as if it should be the first of a series, while McKinley has said she has no plans for a sequel. On the one hand, this is a good thing, in that the reader is really getting a slice of this person's life, which existed before you got there and will continue after you're gone. On the other hand, the reader has a strong expectation to know more, which it seems will never be fulfilled. This is even more frustrating since it seems McKinley has enough information to write more of the tale. The few slow sections are detailed descriptions of things only tangentially related to the main story, several of which point toward future plot possibilities. And while the book ends satisfactorily, there is clearly more that these characters need to explore in their powers and relationships -- an exploration that might lead us in directions other writers have yet to examine.
Despite these flaws -- and I can think of many worse flaws than leaving the reader wanting more -- I would recommend this book. Most of what's done well here in the area of "vampire lore" has been done as well or better elsewhere, but it's rare to see so many different elements done well, all in the same book. It's not the angst ridden erotic whirlwind of Laurell K. Hamilton and it's not the gothic horror of Anne Rice, but the story is well-written, the secondary characters are appealing, and the world and the magics that McKinley presents are truly unique and interesting. So don't buy the hype, but if you want a fun, well-written vampire tale, then go buy the book.
Copyright © 2004 Erin Donahoe
Erin Donahoe currently works at a comic shop, where she relentlessly recommends Fables, Transmetropolitan, and Kingdom Come to the unwary public. She is predominantly a poet, and invites you to visit her online journal at http://www.journalscape.com/erin/. Erin's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.