Sunday, February 15th, 2009 • No Comments
I first discovered Robin McKinley when I was working in the children’s department at the public library. While reshelving books, I came across Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast and became an admirer—if not a fan—of her writing. Her fairytale retellings are clever and more mature than the original stories (though some critics would argue the original tales by the brothers Grimm are hardly suitable for children). She won the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown and is listed among the top writers of fantasy fiction.
For some reason, I only associated McKinley with children’s and YA books—perhaps because that’s where I discovered her. Then I saw Sunshine at Barnes and Noble over the holidays and I bought it without a second thought. (These days, i weigh my book purchases against the stacks of books I have yet to read and the time I have left on this planet.) I love vampires and figured if McKinley could do for vampires what she did with fairy tales, I would be hooked. I was right. From this opening paragraph, I zipped through seventy pages in one sitting:
It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.
According to Ms. McKinley’s website, Sunshine was originally published in 2003. I don’t know how I missed it the first time—especially since I was deep into my Laurell K. Hamilton vampire phase then—but I’m so glad it was reissued. McKinley is a terrific world-builder, creating an alternate reality that is at once believable and fantastical. She uses what we know—or what we think we know—about vampires and crafts her own new version.
Sunshine is told from the perspective of an ordinary, if not entirely human, girl named Rae (nicknamed Sunshine) who bakes amazing cinnamon rolls, dates a tough-looking biker, fights with her very human mother and has an unusual interest in the Others—otherwise known as vampires, demons, weres and anything not-human. Sunshine’s world takes a tumble into the dark side almost as soon as we meet her:
The road that went to what had been my parents’ cabin was passable, if only just. I got out there and went and sat on the porch and looked at the lake. My parents’ cabin was the only one still standing in this area, possibly because it had belonged to my father, whose name meant something even during the Voodoo Wars. There was a bad spot off to the east, but it was far enough away not to trouble me, though I could feel it was there.
I sat on the sagging porch, swinging my legs and feeling the troubles of the day draining out of me like water. The lake was beautiful: almost flat calm, the gentlest lapping against the shore, and silver with moonlight. I’d had many good times here: first with my parents, when they were still happy together, and later on with my gran. As I sat there I began to feel that if I sat there long enough I could get to the bottom of what was making me so cranky lately, find out if it was anything worse than poor quality flour and a somewhat errant little brother.
I never heard them coming. Of course you don’t, when they’re vampires.
In the darkness, Sunshine discovers an unlikely ally in the form of a vampire named Constantine. Con, as she calls him, has some of the best lines in the book. McKinley’s strength is in her strong, believable characterization (even in fantastical stories) and rich, almost meandering, narrative. You never quite know where she is headed in some passages—but her writing is so poetic that you don’t mind going along for the ride. Sunshine isn’t a vampire slayer and her non-human talents are something she has ignored for most of her life until circumstances force her to confront her own abilities. Con is a serious vampire, not given to the homoerotic flourishes of the vampires of Hamilton or Rice, who finds himself in dire straits. Together, Sunshine and Con, light and dark, have to find a way to work together to destroy the evil that threatens them both. The secondary characters are entertaining—especially the crowd at Charlie’s, the family coffeehouse and bakery. The setting is kind of a edge-of-nowhere sort of friendly, sort of creepy small town named New Arcadia. Think post-Apocalyptic Mayberry.
I often joke that the increase in the number of raccoons that coming begging at my backdoor during the full moon can be attributed to some were-raccoons joining the mix. So I was amused by this line:
Were-raccoons are nasty little beggars and were-skunks are, well, beyond a nightmare.
I knew they existed!
Sunshine, winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, is an entertaining read, elevating vampire fiction to a new level. If you enjoy Neil Gaiman’s mythical tales, you will certainly find McKinley equally delightful. I’m happy to have rediscovered her and I’ll be checking the bookstore shelves for other books I may have missed.