Sunshine by Robin McKinley. To quote Neil Gaiman “It’s not quite SF, and it’s not really horror, and only kind of a love story, and it’s all three while still being solidly Fantastique.”
Robin McKinley in my favorite author. There is no runner up, there is no debate. Since I first read The Hero and the Crown when I was about 14 I have devoured everything she has written. Sunshine not only did not disappoint, it blew my mind. Most of McKinley’s work is classified as Young Adult and this was her first book that was written for adult audiences. Not to say that adults can’t enjoy YA books, it’s my favorite genre, but this was her first book that was targeted directly at grown ups and featuring more material verging on an R-rating as well as being a more challenging read. I didn’t know that when I picked it up but I knew it before I was 20 pages in.
The plot basics: Heroine – Rae, called Sunshine. Full time baker takes a drive down to the lake to get some alone time. Situation – Sunshine gets kidnapped by vampires and shit devolves from there. No sparkly vampires here, no completely remaking the idea of vampires because they are too icky. Vampires are alien, frightening predators. They are evil and disgusting. Sunshine and her allies, but mostly just Sunshine, have to figure out how to deal with the fallout from being kidnapped by monsters and the consequences of what she has to do to get away from them. (If you want more on the plot, just read the bloody thing.)
McKinley’s presentation of the mythology of this slightly-not-our-reality is really what makes this book so stellar. The only other author I can think of who does as fantastic a job of presenting the conditions of the world they are portraying is Garth Nix. There is some blatant exposition, Sunshine speaking to to us (the book is written in the first person) about what has happened and setting the stage for the action. This is kept to a happy minimum and mostly McKinley really shows us what is happening without trying to burden us with any sort of justification for why. If one character is a really awesome wardcrafter we get told that by Sunshine, we don’t have to sit through any long winded explanation of the history of wards or why they work or don’t or how they have a small consciousness or any other mundanities unless they actually matter to the plot. I really hate books that make a point of explaining the entire reasoning behind whatever magic or science fiction precept the author has come up with. So you spent thirteen years inventing a system of magic and you really really want me to know exactly how it works. I just want to know what happens to the hero. There is a reason that Tolkein published The Hobbit before he published The Silmarillion. The book never gets that sort of reference book tone that some works fall into when they are trying to explain themselves.
The only down side for me was when the plot slows down about halfway through the book. Sunshine has a personality crisis that I felt was sort of a red herring. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. She is working through existential angst and the plot-driven voice in my brain is screaming for the author to get on with it. The character development is quality though and later on the relationships set up in that section pay off and make for some excellent tension and resolution. It felt a little tough to get through but it was worth it in the end.
To quote Neil Gaiman again, because he’s a much better writer than I, “It also does that nice thing where the author assumes the readers are smart, and she treats us like we’re smart, and we purr and get smarter and work harder for all that.” This book was work to read and to comprehend. There were passages that I had to reread a couple of times to really get the meaning of. It wasn’t Name of the Rose but it wasn’t far off. Much of the book consists of Sunshine talking to herself, an internal monologue examining her motivations, circumstances and at one point, her sanity. It is stream of consciousness at times. You could skim it and get the basic story but you would be missing a lot of content and much of what happens later, especially Sunshine’s reactions and motivations, would be lost if you gave short shrift to her internal conversation.
This is a fantastic book. I devoured it and I can’t wait for McKinley to revisit that reality. The characters and plot are gripping and the resolution does not involve characters suddenly becoming stupid or acting completely out of character (do you hear me Zombieland???). The prose demanded my full attention and the plot delivered thrills and chills and excitement, yay!
A final note, the descriptions of baked goods in this book will make you drool. I think I gained five pounds while reading it just because of the cravings it engendered. I suggest having chocolate muffins and lemon tarts on standby so you don’t have to choose between going to the store and keeping on reading the book.