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by Robin McKinley

US hardcover edition

Robin McKinley isn't supposed to write about vampires. Robin McKinley is supposed to write comfort books, the kind you read to pieces and keep under the bed for when you're sick. Even the darkest material in Deerskin is mixed with fuzzy puppies and adoring dogs. So it's surprising that with her latest novel, Sunshine, McKinley has jumped into the vampire bucket with Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, and Tanya Huff.

Rae Seddon, known to her friends and family as Sunshine, isn't supposed to deal with vampires. Rae is supposed to bake comfort food: cinammon rolls as big as your head, and cherry tarts, and Bitter Chocolate Death. She is not supposed to be kidnapped away from her big, noisy family; she's not supposed to escape; and she's especially not supposed to become prison buddies with one of the vampires.

After an ominous opening, the reader has to wade through quite a bit of exposition to find out what horrible thing has happened to Rae. The story gradually reveals how different Sunshine's world is from ours. Vampires are quietly taking over her world; demons hide among the human population; the Voodoo Wars have decimated the human population and scarred the landscape. Human laws and technology have evolved to cope. Sunshine has a stash of trashy vampire novels with titles like "Sordid Enchantments", "Altar of Darkness", and "Immortal Death", but it's a capital crime to write about sexual relations between a vampire and a human. Christian symbology is surprisingly absent, but characters do make Star Trek references.

McKinley's writing has always been suffused with a sense of affection among the characters, the animals, even the inanimate objects. I would have expected that underlying sweetness to be out of place in a horror novel, but instead it throws the violent and creepy bits into greater contrast. McKinley's vampires aren't melancholy insomniacs with super-powers; they're strange and inhuman, and they seem all the more alien among a close-knit community with its jokes and habits and running arguments.

Interestingly, Rae's mother is a strong influence (and irritant) on Rae and a catalyst for several events, but she never makes an appearance in the narration.

This book is definitely a change in tone. McKinley has written ripsnorting adventure, she has written gothic romance, she has written dark and brooding fantasy about wounded people, but there has always been a certain gentility to her writing. There was nothing you couldn't read aloud to your mother with a straight face. Sunshine contains a little sex and quite a lot of violence, and Rae's narration is unexpectedly earthy. It's a bit like finding your favorite aunt telling dirty jokes in a biker bar.

He bent and picked me up more easily than I pick up a tray of cinammon rolls.

It was not going to be a comfortable ride. It was rather like sitting on the stripped frame of a chair that has had all the chair bits taken away -- there are just a few nasty pieces of iron railing left, and they start digging railing- shaped holes into you at once. Also, if this was a chair, it was made for some other species to sit in. Vampires do breathe, by the way, but their chests don't move like humans'. Have you ever lain in the arms of your sweetheart and tried to match your breathing to his, or hers? You do it automatically. Your brain only gets involved if your body is having trouble. Fortunately there was nothing about this situation that was like being in the arms of a sweetheart except that I was leaning against someone's naked chest. I could no more have breathed with him than I could have ignited gasoline and shot exhaust out my butt because I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car.

As I said, not quite as genteel as one might expect.

McKinley doesn't bring anything new to the trashy vampire genre, except perhaps for a pornographic appreciation of desserts, but Sunshine has charm, grace, and graphic violence. It may not be suitable for children, but it should appeal both to fans of popular vampire series and to fans of her gentler fairy-tale novels. She does leave quite a few loose ends dangling. I hope she'll write a sequel; she's never written one before, but then she's never written such a commercial book before either.

Trumpets and fireworks are called for when Robin McKinley releases a new book, any new book. For the past several years, her work has been lovely but unmemorable. Sunshine is a drastic departure for her, and it's the best thing she's written since Deerskin.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
March 2004

hardcover edition
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group
Date: September 2003
ISBN: 0-425-19178-8
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 400
Price: US $23.95

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Robin McKinley: The Blue Sword

Robin McKinley: Deerskin

Robin McKinley: Rose Daughter

Charlaine Harris: Dead Until Dark

Tanya Huff: Blood Price

Laurell K. Hamilton: Guilty Pleasures

Sean Stewart: Mockingbird
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Mar 2004 / CMS