Just finished reading Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. Lordy. What a fabulous read! Many thanks to Emily U. for recommending it to me. I think I devoured it in a 24 hour period—I read until 2:00am last night and then polished it off over a few hours this afternoon. Even the great Neil Gaiman loves it. His blurb on the cover? He says Sunshine is “pretty much perfect.” A recommendation doesn’t get much stronger than that.
Sunshine tells the story of the somewhat improbably named Sunshine Seddon, although how she acquires the nickname is important, or rather her real name is important, and I won’t give that away. She works at Charlie’s Coffeehouse along with her step-father Charlie, mother and brothers, and her life is completely consumed with being in the small family restaurant biz and all that entails. She is, in particular, the chief baker, famous for her cinnamon rolls, and that requires her to be up and at the shop by 4:30am in the morning, while it is still dark, to bake for the day to come.
Sunshine lives in an alternative version of our world. A world in which Others of all kinds exist, the Big Three being weres, demons and, of course, vampires. And while many if not most of the Others try to fit into human society as much as they are able, hiding what they are if possible, the vampires are no friends to humans. They are evil. Real evil. When Sunshine was 10, the vampires, pretty much tired of having to put up with humans and being the only Other actively legislated against, declared war on all humankind. The fallout of said war can still be felt now that Sunshine has graduated from High School and works full time at the coffee house. A special police unit has been created to monitor Other activity, magic users and part bloods must be registered, the revelation that you may be a part blood can get you fired, discrimination against weres is rampant and so forth. Some of my favorite moments, in fact, involve Sunshine describing the sorts of things high schoolers would do when they were being rebellious—no one is out toilet papering houses when being out in the dark is pretty much guaranteed trouble in you’re not careful. By the same token, toilet papering wouldn’t be nearly rebellious enough in such a world. One “advantage” of vampires, Sunshine wryly notes, is that since the human population of the world has decreased so drastically that concerns about using up natural resources and population just aren’t that big a deal anymore.
One night after a tough day at work, Sunshine drives out to a cottage on the lake where she used to visit her gran when she was little, to seek a little peace and quite. “It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb,” Sunshine tells us. “There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years.” What trouble she means we do not know until some 12-pages later. Then she tells us “I never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.” Sunshine is captured by a gang of vampires and shackled to the wall of an abandoned mansion on the other side of the lake with another vampire who is also being held prisoner there. His name is Constantine. He and his captor have been mortal enemies, as well as philosophical ones, for many years and he has been starving Constantine and forcing him to stay awake under the day for almost a week when his gang brings in Sunshine. It is a game of self-control and will power. Constantine’s will is apparently ironclad because Sunshine survives the night and the next day. So, just to make things really interesting, when the vampire gang returns that give her a serious cut on across her chest because tossing her in Constantine’s lap and disappearing into the night. This bit of torture is meant to push Constantine to the limit so that he will snap and drain her blood, something he does not wish to do for reasons unknown. The story unwinds from there.
I must say, I wasn’t super enthralled by the plot itself. It was good. I liked the sort of commentary on the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of terror and the black humor enveloping Sunshine’s asides about how life is living in a world full of hostile Others, all of which are stronger and more powerful than you. But what really made the book such a delight for me are the characters of Sunshine and Constantine. They are just really nicely done characters. Constantine especially. Constantine is most decidedly NOT a pretty boy vampire. None of the vampires are. Vampires, in the world in which Sunshine lives, are evil, dangerous, sadistic, powerful, terrifying, monstrous. They are the primal opposite of humans. Their sheer alien otherness is so all pervasive that Sunshine points out that not even the sickest of psychotics would ever become romantically attached with one. Sunshine cannot even tell the male from the female vampires when she is being taken to the mansion and to Constantine. Sunshine tells us that Constantine is ugly and she almost gags when she first meets him. No sparkle there, my friends. McKinley does a really beautiful job in describing their pure otherness – the way they move is oily and fluid; they have the grey skin of the dead; the sound of their voices and their very smell is something beyond Sunshine’s ability to describe except that she knows that every instinct in her goes into fight-or-flight mode when they are around. And this, of course, is what makes the seduction of their victims all the more terrible. This is, perhaps, a nod to Dracula. Dear Mina Murray describes the simultaneous revulsion and desire that she feels when Dracula drinks her blood.
Watching Sunshine and Constantine try to figure out what binds them, whether their being shackled together is pure coincidence or something else, Sunshine’s rather willful denial of the fact that her life can never return to “normal,” all these things play out in such interesting ways over the course of the novel. This is not really a romance. Except that it sort of is. Except that it really isn’t and it’s a paradox for the two of them as well. They are too busy trying to figure out how to survive to be concerned about silly things like romance, except that they can’t be apart from each other either. In fact, I found myself so satisfied with the ending and how it managed to play out that paradox to the end, that I was also ridiculously sad that I had finished the book and I couldn’t read more about the two of them.
McKinley had said that she doesn’t believe in sequels (an odd thing not to believe in) and I have to respect that. It seems to me that McKinley’s great gift in writing her young adult vampire novel is her gift from restraint. Although, since Sunshine was originally published in 2003 and has been reprinted this year, with a new sparkly golden cover, it’s entirely possible that a “sequel” of some sort is in the works. I hope that it is. Because despite my respect for how McKinley chooses to end things, I still gotta know more.
Reading the novel also had me singing Len’s super-awesome 90s classic “Steal my Sunshine” by Len. Anyone remember them?