Janet Recommends: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

“Her feet are already bleeding – if you like feet…”

There are places in the world where darkness rules, where it’s unwise to walk. Sunshine knew that. But there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years, and she needed a place to be alone for a while.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone. She never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.

They took her clothes and sneakers. They dressed her in a long red gown. And they shackled her to the wall of an abandoned mansion– within easy reach of a figure stirring in the moonlight.

She knows that he is a vampire. She knows that she’s to be his dinner, and that when he is finished with her, she will be dead. Yet, as dawn breaks, she finds that he has not attempted to harm her. And now it is he who needs her to help him survive the day … — [X]

I have many guesses as to why Janet might have recommended Sunshine for me to read. (Actually, she had me choose between Sunshine and Shadows, but I was in a vampire sort of mood.) For one thing, I’ve never read Robin McKinley, so I guess she decided enough was enough. For another, she is (painfully) aware that I am in love with the world of Shadowhunters and probably knew that I would also appreciate the extensive world that McKinley manages to build in just one novel.

Well, she’s not wrong. I really enjoyed McKinley’s writing. Sunshine is funny and fun and walks delicately on the line between teasing vampire novels and taking itself seriously. And really, if it was just a satire of Twilight I would have liked it far less. I would have just read Team Human instead. I am glad it did not come to that. McKinley has a wicked sense of humour (and by extension, so does her heroine) but it does not fetter the earnestness with which she builds her world and furthers the plot.

Rae, or Sunshine as she has come to be known, is the protagonist of this novel and man does she have a fun head to live in:

I don’t put up with being messed around, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. The short version of that is that I’m a bitch. Trust me, I can provide character references.

Sunshine is, for the most part, pretty no-nonsense. I like that about her. She keeps her head down, bakes from the crack of dawn (sometimes before), and mostly keeps to herself. She has the regulars at the diner, she has her not-really-bad-boy boyfriend (who I actually really liked– enough to want a short story on him), she has her family, and her few friends. That world is big enough for her and she enjoys it. So when Sunshine is kidnapped by vampires and her world explodes open, it is really very interesting to see how she responds to the situation and how her character arc evolves from there. As the novel progresses, McKinley does a great job of keeping Sunshine’s strong and silent demeanour but works at carefully excavating the Sunshine underneath the brassy, unfazed exterior. And she does it so well and so gradually that you never feel like the character has changed into something unrecognizable. (I only make a point to say this because I feel like lately I’ve been reading books where characters change in ways that seem unnatural and what would in a fanfiction arena would have been accused of being too OOC.)

The same can be said of the vampire that Sunshine has been imprisoned with. Con– and yes, he does stick around– is an uncommon vampire. Everyone has their own take on how to write immortality. The (fun?) thing about writing immortality– whether you are talking gods or vampires– is the mutable way in which age and youth can be presented. McKinley makes Con have the rather unique arc of going from someone who really does feel ancient to … someone who is still pretty ancient. *shrug* That’s what he read like to me. And I think that’s pretty interesting because yes, of course, this should be one of the many ways vampires can be presented. Not to say that Con isn’t revealed to have depths of youth and humanity. Just like Sunshine, Con’s character develops but is still solidly recognizable as the character we met way in the beginning. In general, McKinley’s vampires (and their particular brand of magic) are as dark and intense as Holly Black’s, if not darker. Which is, you know, part of the fun of having a whole section of fantasy devoted to vampires– having an array of interpretations of vampires.

I think I could talk for ages about what a wonderful array of characters that McKinley has written but I feel like I should move on. The world-building, as I said in the beginning, is pretty detailed. I liked that within the first few pages we get a pretty firm grasp on the world Sunshine inhabits. The thing is, as we go deeper into the novel, newer facets of the world are revealed, some big and some small– neither really explained. I don’t understand why McKinley kept revealing bits of her world right till the end (page 380 something– I kid not) when she didn’t intend to explore them further? Oh well. I suppose there’s no use in lamenting the lack of a sequel. I do, however, lament the unexplained in this existing novel. I cannot really talk about the larger things for fear of spoilers but small things like, how/why/when phrases like “carthaginian hell” and “Shiva weeps” made their way into common vernacular goes unexplained but I feel needs to be dissected a little. I have to say, I am not sure if I am a fan of characters using names of Hindu gods when there isn’t really a single Hindu character in the mix that explains the origins of this kind of usage. I guess, unsurprisingly, that is my main* complaint of Sunshine. (I say, unsurprisingly because it is also my complaint of Cassie Clare’s Shadowhunter world.) Too much of a dominant culture casually borrowing from “minority” cultures in ways that aren’t very meaningful.

My confused complaints aside, I did enjoy the novel a lot. Complex characters, interesting plot, and extensive world-building are my main priorities while reading fantasy and McKinley delivers on all those fronts. Its humour (unexpected and otherwise) and its heart (beating and otherwise) are sure to capture readers’ attention from start to finish. Sunshine is a bright spot in this, otherwise rapidly dulling, subset of fantasy.

Thank you Janet for recommending this! Now, when are you coming over so we can bake all the things mentioned in Sunshine? ^_^

*Also, in Sunshine supernatural/not-quite-human characters are referred to as “Others”. I am not even sure how I feel about the academic usage of “others” to mean “minorities” and I am less sure about this particular usage. But because I am not sure, I suppose I hardly have a point here. I wonder what other “minority” readers feel about this …