Sunshine by Robin McKinley
(Berkley, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-425-19178-8
***
This book should have been a keeper. I wanted it to be a keeper. It had all of the necessary ingredients – gifted author, classic supernatural plot, haunting atmosphere – and I couldn’t wait to start reading it. Much to my dismay, the end result was disappointing. I’ve been a Robin McKinley fan since her 1985 Newbery-Award winning YA novel The Hero and the Crown, but Sunshine is far from her best work. The writing is sharp, but the pace is slow, the secondary characters are sketchy and too many threads are left hanging at its conclusion.  

The novel takes place in the alternate and/or post-apocalyptic world of New Arcadia, where the mystical exists alongside the mundane. Rae “Sunshine” Seddons is the gifted baker of Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head and many other delightful creations at Charlie’s Coffeehouse. Despite a difficult relationship with her short-tempered mother, Sunshine enjoys her job, her biker/chef boyfriend Mel and the coffeehouse’s regular customers. But one night, an odd sense of restlessness sends her for a solitary walk near the lake that was once a major battleground in the recent Voodoo Wars - and straight into a gang of vampires.  

Werewolves and various demons are tolerated, if not fully accepted, by humans, but vampires remain their mortal enemies, hunted by the Special Other Forces police who frequent the coffeehouse and regale Sunshine with gruesome “sucker” stories. So Sunshine knows that she’s a dead woman, especially when she’s chained to a wall and left alone with a hungry vampire. But something unpredictable happens. Sunshine gradually realizes that Con, a polite but deadly vampire, is also a prisoner. And although Con obviously needs a meal, Sunshine reaches the morning very much alive with the realization that the vampire needs her help to survive the daylight hours – and that she must tap into long dormant powers to save them both. Thus begins an uneasy alliance and an indescribable bond between the woman who lives to soak up the sun and the vampire who hides himself from its powerful rays.  

Sounds intriguing, right? And some elements of Sunshine are exquisitely rendered. McKinley is a master at creating an atmospheric sense of dread – you feel Sunshine’s abject fear keenly, even when she’s cracking jokes to keep from going mad (Con could have a great future in the theater, she muses during one tense moment, so long as no one expected him to do matinees). McKinley’s talent for descriptive prose provides the reader with clear pictures of Sunshine’s dire predicament. But the ever-present tension is too infrequently countered by action. After the first horrifying encounter with Con, the plot slows to a creepy crawl.

Sunshine, whose father was a sorcerer, learns to accept the power she has long ignored and prepares for a final showdown with Con’s nemesis, but that confrontation is limited to the book’s final 60 pages. The intervening 200 pages are engaging but frequently frustrating. Readers who are accustomed to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books or Buffy the Vampire Slayer will likely become impatient waiting for the butt-kicking to commence. Instead, Sunshine spends a lot of time agonizing about her relationship with Con, her obligation to her SOF friends, and the true nature of her own character. Her chatty first-person narrative occasionally detours into discussions about the succubus problem, the various Were-animal configurations and other peculiarities of her world, but these tangents distract from the main plot.  

So much time is spent on Sunshine’s internal musings that the other characters suffer in comparison. I thought surely there would be some kind of reconciliation between Sunshine and her outspoken mother, but that key relationship is sadly underexplored. Biker boyfriend Mel is also an unsolved mystery, although a few of Sunshine’s SOF colleagues reveal surprising secrets. But the biggest disappointment is Con. A secondary character comments that there is a difference between darkness and evil; clearly Con is supposed to reflect the former, while the other vampires represent the latter. But he makes only a few appearances into Sunshine’s life, and leaves many questions unanswered, so his appeal is significantly muted. Readers should also note that although the book is advertised as “a mesmerizing novel of supernatural desire,” the bond between Sunshine and Con veers only once, briefly, into the sensual realm. Chalk up another point for a zealous but inaccurate public relations staff!  

McKinley excels at world-building, and she easily convinces the reader to accept a realm in which charms and wards are accepted means of protection for your car or house, and vampires control a dangerous percentage of the computer “Globenet.” Unfortunately, her fascination with the world she’s created slows the story’s momentum. Sunshine feels like the beginning of a series, but in a recent interview McKinley said she won’t commit to writing a sequel – and that Sunshine might not be the main character if she does. Those of us who have waited for more than 15 years for another novel about Damar, the setting for Hero and the Crown and its predecessor The Blue Sword, know better than to hold our collective breaths.  

Ultimately, Sunshine is a beautifully written but flawed novel that should have been even better. I had hoped it would be a 5-heart keeper that would allow me to introduce TRR readers to this talented author, but unfortunately the best I can offer is a qualified recommendation for readers who don’t think “slow-paced vampire novel” is an oxymoron.  

Susan Scribner

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