Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Thank you to Megan, who lent me her copy.

Last week I promised I’d review a *gasp* horror story. So here it is! I regret, Nafiza, that I can’t call the vampires in this one pure evil. That is, I can’t call ALL of the vampires completely evil, although there is only one exception, and the remainder of the Darkest of Dark Others are irredeemable horrors.

So. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.

McKinley - Sunshine

This novel harkens back to and glories in the gothic tradition. One of McKinley’s greatest triumphs in Sunshine is the world she builds. When I read Sunshine for the first time, I was constantly adding new pieces of information as the background of the world emerged from murkiness to tantalizingly brief clarity. There is so much I was left not knowing, yet I felt that I’d gained a clear understanding of what I needed to know to understand and emphasize with Sunshine, or Rae’s adventure. Reading the story for the second time was like reconstructing a conversation – I knew the gist of what had happened, and some details were crystal clear in my memory, but there were vast tracts of information that I’d forgotten and had the pleasure of rediscovering.

But before I get ahead of myself, a brief synopsis is in order. (Spoiler alert! Skip to the second cover of Sunshine below, or go read something else, if you don’t want anything spoiled for you.)

Sunshine, our narrator-protagonist, is a baker. First and foremost, Sunshine (or Rae, or Raven) sees herself as a baker. Just your typical twenty-something who rents a place from a nice old landlady so she doesn’t have to live with her mom and rises at four in the morning to bake the cinnamon rolls and other goodies for the coffee shop, which is not coincidentally owned by her step-dad, Charlie. Sunshine has a job, a family, a boyfriend, all of which she loves very much. And then one evening she wants a break from everyone, so she goes to the lake.

Big mistake.

What should have been a few pleasant hours alone turn into a nightmare as Sunshine is caught by those Darkest of Dark Others and, even more terrifyingly, not killed immediately. Instead, she is shackled to the wall in the ballroom of an abandoned mansion with a vampire who scares even the other vampires who have trapped him there.

Everyone knows you don’t escape from vampires. But Sunshine does. Against all the demands of reason and humanity, she frees her fellow captive as well.

And what should have been the end of a nightmare becomes only the beginning.

McKinley - Sunshine - 2

Dum da da dummmmm!

What on earth can I find to say about a novel which Neil Gaiman has called “Pretty much perfect”?

For starters, I was intrigued to note that McKinley defies what all my creative writing professors and fellow editors have asserted. You do not give a whole list of names and information to the reader without explaining it. Or some of it. McKinley begins by jumping right into Sunshine’s world without explaining much at all. I spent the first few pages madly trying to fit it all together in my head, and once I got beyond the feeling that I couldn’t handle it all, I thought it was fantastic. Rules aren’t really rules, after all, and the frenzied pace of the first several pages throws the reader right into Sunshine’s feelings of chaos and desire for escape. Names and relationships are slowly sorted out and the reader driftingly settles, like silt subsiding to the bottom of a pond, into Sunshine’s world.

The story is astoundingly referential. I’d thought myself well-read but I’d never heard of more than half of the vampire/Dark Other books Sunshine mentions in passing. (I suspect that McKinley made a bunch of them up, except that I did find a library copy of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I don’t know how ANYBODY has ever finished it; I didn’t get beyond the first five pages. It must improve, however. Possibly like Wuthering Heights it is only the first few chapters that are impenetrable. I haven’t finished Wuthering Heights, either – anyone care to verify?) (Also, the first time I read Sunshine I made a list of the books she references. Nineteen books and two specified authors, and I may have missed a few.) The references are DENSE and not much elaborated upon in the story, serving rather as background material and adding to the mythology and world. Working knowledge of them is not at all necessary to enjoy Sunshine, although that readers who have read them will have the added pleasure of catching references.)

The worldbuilding is, as I mentioned above, sufficiently believable and solid for the story, but goes no further. While reading the world felt solid; when I had finished I was surprised to consider how much I did not know. There are huge swaths of information, particularly history, politics, and biology, of which the reader is given a taste and no more. I would definitely read a sequel, partly for this reason.

The characters are fairly rounded. They are, of course, portrayed as Sunshine sees them, which makes things interesting, since she is far from unbiased. The ending was, I felt, nicely grounded. McKinley tends towards internal or mystical confrontations, which at times annoy me (even though I like her stories and am drawn back to them despite the annoyance) but this one felt balanced by the very mundane (sort of), human bureaucracy that Sunshine has to battle immediately after the climax. There were a few small things that annoyed me about the story, but overall I was impressed.

I should note that there are very adult and quite explicit passages, so if you’re looking for a nice scary read for your ten-year-old, I’d recommend going elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re an adult in search of a vampire story set in a world like our own and yet tantalizingly Other, you may find this an interesting read.

A few more horror stories:

The Reformed Vampire Support Group by Catherine Jinks. Amusing but not high on the list of horror stories I’d recommend. It is unique, however, in that vampires are weak, vulnerable, and rather disgusting. The grosser aspects of being/becoming a vampire are neatly (er, messily?) explored. A sequel, The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group has been released. (I will more warmly recommend Jinks’ gorgeous Pagan Chronicles, which are set in the crusader era. You will never be able to romanticize the middle ages again, and you will never call them dull.)

Blood is the New Black by Valerie Stivers. Funny send-up of the fashion industry.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones. Eerie. Some of the neglected sisters’ scrapes are based on Jones’ own childhood.

  • MeganUnicorn

    I love Sunshine! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 😀 I know it will never happen… but I want a sequel.

  • Yes!! I am so glad you liked this! And I totally would have loved a sequel – it didn’t feel quite finished to me. Not the book as a whole per se, but it just felt like there was so much more to say! I hate that this is easily McKinley’s least popular book. Yes, it does have a different feel from her books…but..but..IT’S SO GOOD! I mean I’m biased, I’m a hardcore McKinley fan (I can’t WAIT to get my hands on Shadows!!!) but still. Robin McKinley can do no wrong.