Book Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

I would need both my hands and somebody else’s to count the number of times that Sunshine has been recommended to me.  Rosie has been so fervent that I might still have the bruises to show for it.  I knew that Sunshine was a unique spin on a vampire-slaying story before I started reading.  I knew that Robin McKinley is a phenomenal writer with acres of imagination to cultivate at her disposal.  I also knew that a lot of this book takes place at a bakery, and that the descriptions of cinnamon rolls and “killer zebra” cakes were just as seductive as the harsh, dark vampire world she’d created. (After reading, I can say: Huzzah! All of these things are true!) Knowing all this in advance, I made up my mind in advance to read Sunshine slowly, so that I could enjoy the process of discovering it for the first time.  Four days, and many dessert-cravings later, I extracted myself from New Arcadia, blinking oddly in the daylight and wishing to know what would happen next.

Sunshine wakes up every morning at 4 am to bake cinnamon rolls at her step dad’s coffee shop.  She likes her life in the bakery: the regulars, her coworkers, her sorta-boyfriend Mel.  Then, when she drives out to the lake one fateful night to clear her head, Sunshine’s life gets torn to pieces.  A vicious gang of vampires kidnap Sunshine and bring her to a big abandoned house in the woods, where they lock her in a room with another prisoner: an old and very hungry vampire. They don’t expect Sunshine and the vampire to talk. She is meant to be dinner.  Instead, she draws on a secret magical skill from her childhood to free them both, thus binding her fate and Constantine’s together.  Now the evil vampire behind Con’s imprisonment wants both of them dead.

It’s hard to return to a life of rising dough and bustling kitchens after an ordeal such as that.  Sunshine can’t forget what happened to her, and she’s drawn the attention of some Special Other Forces agents.  The SOF keeps an eye on any activity relating to non-humans, ever since the “Voodoo Wars” changed civilization and demons, were-folk, and vampires became a part of everyday life.  With the protectors of humanity dogging her footsteps around New Arcadia, and a bunch of really nasty vampires stalking her in otherworldly realms, Sunshine has to team up with her co-captive to try and turn their fate around.  It seems like everyone in New Arcadia has a dangerous secret.  The further Sunshine digs into the recent traumatizing events, the more she begins to realize how unusual her own past is, and what a danger she could be to the people she loves.

I have so many things I want to say about Sunshine, and they all refuse to get typed into neat sentences.  This book was always tugging on one corner of my mind over the four days it took me to finish.  Layers upon layers of otherworldly drama and mysterious characters have a way of distracting a girl.

McKinley drops us into a world where paranormal creatures are as much a part of daily conversation as complaints about grumpy customers. The horrifyingly real vampires who mess around with Sunshine’s life seem extra threatening in contrast to the dramatic rumors and stories which circulate.  The particular existence of demons, were-people, vampires, and the like is never unveiled in explicit detail.  Sunshine thinks about Other activity a lot, so we aren’t left entirely uninformed, but you need to get comfortable with odd new pieces of fantasy popping up in New Arcadia until you can get your bearings.  It took me several chapters to just accept the fact that I would be confused about some things until McKinley felt like revealing the answer.  Once I came to terms with this, the reading was much easier. The vampire-slaying action gets overly complex at times; maybe unnecessarily so.  My head began to spin from all the charmed objects and alternate planes of reality.  But McKinley’s such a good writer that she twists it all together into a functional and intense sequence of events.

Alas for my inquisitive nature, there were a whole bunch of intriguing side-stories which took up a great many pages only to be left unresolved!  Rosie assured me, when I stomped downstairs to vent my frustration after finishing the book, that Robin McKinley has wanted to do a sequel for a while but hasn’t managed to write something that worked.  Fine, fine.  The semi-realistic fantasy world in Sunshine is convincing and engrossing. Nearly all of the characters had such unique backgrounds and motivations, I could happily read a book devoted to each. A twenty book series, please! I actually liked how some of the newly magical events in Sunshine’s life didn’t have any direct influence on her vampire adventure, because that’s how real life works.  Over the course of a very strange year, she learns that her friends aren’t always as simple as she thought they were, and that her own heritage is too complicated to tackle head-on.

The reason Sunshine is such a long book has a lot to do with the narrative style.  Sunshine tells us about the events in the first-person, so we read along with whatever happens to be on her mind.  When she dwells on her childhood before the coffee shop, we learn how she got her name by lying in the sunlight to heal after a bad illness.  When she worries about the Special Other Forces catching on to her dealings with Con, we get a better picture of how the agency works (or sometimes doesn’t work) to protect humans from non-human dangers.

Sunshine is an extremely introspective woman, and I must say that I could have done without some of the re-hashing and moral conundrums which sometimes bog down the story’s flow. The excessive amount of pondering gives lots of weight to so many of those side-stories which never quite reached a conclusion. On the brighter side, Sunshine is a pretty hilarious narrator. Her sense of humor goes into gear at all the strangest moments, and a few of the scariest scenes are made a little more fun with her eye for black comedy. All the extra detail does make every layer of Sunshine’s life – and all of life post-Voodoo Wars – seem intricately whole and thoroughly real. And if you’re a devoted coffee-shop regular, you’ll probably be happy to read pages and pages of bakery life, where the dark menace so prevalent in Sunshine can’t quite take away the appeal of cherry tarts coming out of the oven.

Want it short(er) and sweet(ish)? Here’s how I wrote down my feelings soon after finishing the book, for my wrap-up of what I read in September.

Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better. …  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Other vampire books I’ve reviewed and recommend:

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black

The Quick by Lauren Owen

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