Robin McKinley is well known for her wonderful re-tellings of fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast” (Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast and Rose Daughter), “Donkeyskin” (Deerskin) and “Sleeping Beauty” (Spindle’s End), as well as her Robin Hood novel The Outlaws of Sherwood and her Damarian fantasies, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown (winner of the Newbery Medal). So a novel about vampires, set in an alternative-history modern “North American” city, is a bit of a departure for her. Or is it?
Right away, Sunshine is recognizable as a McKinley heroine. She’s resourceful, she’s practical, she’s sturdy and plain, she reads a lot — mostly books about the Others — and if she’s got magic in her background (and with a father like Onyx Blaise, one of the last of the great Blaises who helped save humanity during the Wars, how could she not?), it’s not part of her everyday life.
Sunshine is a baker. She makes all the bread and pastries for a busy café owned by her family. She likes her job, and the only odd thing about her that she’ll openly admit to is the fact that she needs sunshine. Lots of sunshine. Without it, she starts to feel sick and weak. Hence the nickname. She and her mother haven’t used her real name, Raven Blaise, since her mother divorced the very important Onyx Blaise and spent a fortune on a whole slew of charms and wards to keep him out of their lives.
But if she lets herself, Sunshine remembers her gran, her father’s mother, visiting her as a child and secretly teaching her an odd skill: Sunshine can use sunlight to change things, shape things. So when Sunshine is captured by vampires one night and held prisoner, she’s able to use the next day’s sunlight to free herself and her fellow prisoner from their shackles and escape. And that might have been the end of the story (at page eighty-two), except that Sunshine’s fellow prisoner is another vampire.
Now, in Robin McKinley’s alternate universe, vampires are not Buffy-charming, Buffy-beautiful, nor Buffy-bumbling. They may have been human once, but as vampires they are completely alien. They look different, think differently, have different abilities. They have absolutely no human motivations anymore, not even hate or desire as humans understand them. And they despise and hunt humans, and humans hate and fear them. So Sunshine doesn’t for a moment think, “Hey, cool!” when she finds herself suddenly with a vampire for a companion. She’s horrified.
In fact, after her experience, it’s not the memory of being captured and hurt by vampires that starts to cause her world to fall apart. It’s the fact that she helped one of them, that he and she are still linked in some way because of that. How can she live with something so perverted? How can she hide it from her family, or from Mel, her sweet, solid biker/cook boyfriend? Not to mention from her landlady, Yolande, who seems to know a bit more about what’s going on in the house than a woman without magical abilities really ought to be able to.
Sunshine’s world will remind some readers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — even though the vampires are really, really bad and disgusting here, all of them — because Sunshine and her friends take the same “this is my life, it’s really weird, but I’m gonna figure it out” attitude to their challenges. It will remind other readers of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, because McKinley fully integrates her magical creatures into their surroundings; their lives and motivations, while thoroughly non-human, are fully believable. At the same time, McKinley opens new territory on the vampire range.
In Con, the vampire whom Sunshine rescues, we have a protagonist who is alien, “other,” and yet three-dimensional. He’s not broodingly handsome. His skin is gray, and he’s hard for Sunshine to look at. C.J. Cherryh and Orson Scott Card are the leading masters in the science fiction/fantasy field at writing real aliens, aliens who are truly alien, not just humans with an extra leg or scales. With Sunshine, Robin McKinley joins their ranks. Sunshine and Con’s relationship is difficult, complicated. They don’t know if they like one another (in fact, Sunshine can’t tell at first if Con really likes anything at all), they don’t understand how to communicate with one another, they can’t read one another’s facial expressions or body language. How they come to not just an understanding but a partnership takes the bulk of a nicely substantial novel to work out.
Robin McKinley’s strengths as a world builder, most evident in her Damarian novels, are here in full force. She includes smells and tastes, details of real life. I feel as though I could find my way from Sunshine’s house to the café, recognizing other landmarks along the way. McKinley gives enough details of Sunshine’s job as a baker that I’d confidently eat one of her cinnamon rolls, but not so many that I feel I’d need to be interested in being a baker myself to care. Sunshine’s family relationships are just as complex as any young adult’s, without the extra load of angst that so many “YA” writers feel it necessary to pile on.
This is the Robin McKinley who won the Newberry, and who I’m confident will win it again soon. I can’t put her books down while I’m reading them, and when I’m done they don’t put me down, but carry me along for a good while after. I hope she writes more about Sunshine and her world, but I’ll read anything she thinks up.
(Berkley Books U.S., 2003; Bantam Press U.K., 2003)