Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: (Urban) Fantasy, Horror
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
They took her clothes and sneakers. They dressed her in a long red gown. And they shackled her to the wall of an abandoned mansion-within easy reach of a figure stirring in the moonlight. She knows that it is a vampire. She knows that she’s to be his dinner, and that when he is finished with her, she will be dead. Yet, when light breaks, she finds that he has not attempted to harm her. And now it is he who needs her to help him survive the day…
Ana: This is my second book by Robin McKinley (first was Beauty) and I am really well impressed with her style. Her storytelling is very distinctive and Sunshine has a magical quality to it – although it is mix of fantasy/horror story in its core, there is still a fairy tale feel and it’s all down to the almost lyrical way the story unfolds.
If I had to choose one word to describe the book, it would be: Delicious. Deliciously mysterious, funny, scary – a veritable page turner from page 1.
Thea: I am a big fan of Robin McKinley’s. On this site, I have reviewed The Blue Sword, which is a classic. I’ve also read some of her other works, such as Beauty and The Hero and the Crown, which are some of my favorite books ever, period.
I was very excited to finally read an ‘adult’ novel by Ms. McKinley, and delved into Sunshine with reckless abandon. And the book was everything I had hoped for…initially. The first half flies by at a nice pace, with the title character’s signature quirky narrative adding levity to a darker fantasy horror story. However, about halfway through the book, I found myself losing interest. The same narrative that was so intriguing and fun initially became lengthy, meandering and frankly–boring. It took me over a week to finish this book, and by the end I was skimming. If I had to pick a word to describe this one, I would say: disappointing. It started off so strongly, and then petered out and made me lose interest. Which makes me sad.
On the plot:
Ana: Sunshine is an ordinary girl who lives in an ordinary small city somewhere in America. She lives a normal life, raised by her mother, surrounded by her family, friends and boyfriend. She works everyday at the Family diner’s as the chief baker- her cinnamon rolls are stuff for legend.
Until one day, she decides to drive to the Lake and is kidnapped. By Vampires. And this is when we find out that the world she lives in albeit much like ours, is not ordinary. At all.
It is rather a world where humans coexist, in a sometimes uneasy way, with other supernatural beings: demons, were-creatures, witches, warlocks and the most dreaded of them all :the vampires. It is never clear to us what has happened but at some point in history there was a War between Others and humans and the human population has been decimated – few survive and some towns have been completely destroyed. It is expected that in 100 years the humans will all be either dead or subservient to the vampire menace.
So with a horrible certainty that she is going to die, as no one has ever survived an encounter with vampires, Sunshine is taken to a mansion in the outskirts of the Lake where she is chained to a wall. And she realises that she is not alone: there is another being , also chained to the wall and when she realises it is a vampire , she understands that she is there to be his meal. But surprisingly, he has no interest in feeding from her: he is also being kept captive and is bent on thwarting their plans and it’s then clear, that not all vampires are evil. So, they strike up an odd conversation and an uneasy alliance is born between the vampire Constantine (Con for short) and Sunshine, when we realise that Sunshine herself is not an ordinary girl either. Quite the contrary, she is the daughter of a most powerful warlock and she has dormant powers of her own who erupt now at this time of need. They manage to escape and go their separate ways.
Sunshine then thinks that all is left behind and hopes to resume her normal life – but nothing can ever be normal anymore. She has to face the growing magic within herself and the danger that it poses to her mind and her body. She also has to make choices with regards to her place in the world – is she to carry on being a baker in a small town cafe or is she to join forces with the people that fight the Others. And then Constantine comes back and things get even more complicated.
In a world where nothing comes easily and no one is what they seem, Sunshine needs to make up her mind. But who is friend and who is foe? What is she to do with her magic and with her growing feelings for Constantine? And more, where can we get a recipe for Cinnamon rolls?
Thea: There is a lengthy plot line after Sunshine returns home from her terrifying ordeal at the Lake house involving the supernatural police, aka the SOF. This book is an urban fantasy at its core, right down to the involvement and creation of law enforcement that deals specifically with Others (or supernatural beings). Unfortunately, the whole SOF storyline was just plain…muddled. Kind of boring. A lot of bureaucracy without much payoff.
The second half of the story focuses on a growing alliance between Sunshine and Con, and their double team to try and stop the evil vampire that had them bound in chains at the lake house. When the action finally does take place (much later in the book) it is a pretty cool showdown.
On the characters:
Ana: To be honest, although many characters were interesting, I didn’t think any of them were really fully developed , except for Sunshine. This is HER book and it feels that way throughout. I did like other characters though, specially mysterious Mel and alluring Constantine but I just loved Sunshine. How she was funny, ironic and self-deprecatory. I loved that she was completely bipolar: how she would play down the events one time or extrapolate them five seconds later. She felt very real, I could relate to the fact that she went through a lot and that it was extremely difficult to come to terms with the changes in her life – with the changes in her own body and mind. And in her heart, once she meets Constantine.
Thea: Ok I am gonna be completely honest here–I do not see this book as having any romance in the slightest. I feel like Sunshine and Con are friends with a special understanding and bond, but don’t really see the romantic angle between them. But, that’s just me. Or rather, maybe I can see how it is supposed to be more ‘romantic’ but it just doesn’t really work for me.
In any case, so far as characters go, Sunshine is the only one that you ever really get to know (well, duh, it’s told from the first person with Sunshine as the narrator). Even at that, I don’t really ‘get’ Sunshine. Like Ana says, she is bipolar. She starts off the book being a girl working in the bakery everyday with her family–she doesn’t eat meat or kill spiders because she likes animals. She’s more reserved, but maybe going a little crazy with the routine of her life and longs for something more. The narrative is fun, quirky and easy to read. All the way through that initial conflict at the lake house, things move pretty smoothly and I understand Sunshine’s thoughts and feelings. However, as the book progresses, things get more muddled and boring. I couldn’t keep up with the story because of all of Sunshine’s weird interjections. She would be mild mannered at one point, and then completely ballistic at another. It was awkward to read. That said, this is a story of ‘self discovery’ and Ms. McKinley convincingly does this with Sunshine’s character (even if I don’t exactly like or understand her).
Again, like Ana says, there aren’t too many other characters you really get to know. Which makes sense, because the story is written in a sort of stream of consciousness method, with Sunshine only seeing things the way she wants to without too much explanation to the readers. Effective as a method of making Sunshine “real”, but incredibly frustrating to read at times. For instance, she constantly refers to her mother, and that she and her mom don’t get along. But there aren’t any interactions between the two! For someone who is very important to Sunshine’s life and development as a woman, it’s annoying not ever being able to see the two together. Sunshine has many interactions with Charlie (her stepfather), Mel (her boyfriend), Paulie (her baking apprentice), but hardly any with her mother–besides the mentions that her mother is paranoid and gives Sunshine a bunch of charms and wards to keep her safe, which now reside in the glove compartment of her car. Hmph.
The other character you get to know…somewhat…is Con, the vampire. He’s a strange guy. Naturally, he’s dead and a vampire, so being strange is understandable. But I didn’t like him at all either. He probably speaks a total of 1 page worth of dialogue in the entire story. Serious.
Then there are other characters that you meet but don’t really get to know or have any explanation about them whatsoever. The “goddess of pain” who works for the SOF, for example, is referred to as the goddess. I don’t have the slightest clue what she really is. Is she really a goddess? Is she human? Why on earth do they call her the goddess of pain? Is it a cutesy nickname? But then why do people call her ‘the goddess’ to her face?
Ms. McKinley knows how to write convincing characters, and I can’t really fault her for not introducing us to others–as I mentioned before, the story is told from a very convincing POV, and anything that Sunshine would not linger on or think of does not make an appearance.
However infuriating that may be!
Final Observations, recommendation and rating:
Ana: The fact that the author at no point stops the narrative to explain what exactly is going on, how things happen in this world was very alluring to me. There was no paragraph that said “The war happened between so and so, so many years ago, etc”. In fact, characters talked about events in ilo tempore, like we the readers, were also part of their world and therefore in the know. I can see how people may find that frustrating but I really enjoyed it – it intrigued and mystified me.
The first part of the novel was my absolute favorite – the point of no return for Sunshine, when she discovers, no she remembers who she really is.
Because, for me, it was a story about identity: I loved the unpredictability of it all – the fact that everyone had secrets and no one were what they seemed to be –in this case taking the saying appearances can be deceiving to the highest degree. It was about Sunshine’s own identity – her father’s daughter? Her mother’s daughter? Both? Her struggle to understand what she would become if she accepted all of the aspects of her personality. Even more, what she would become if she accepted that not all Others were evil – that there can be exceptions – her acceptance of her own self came together with her acceptance of her bond with Con.
This book was an amazing tale and if there is one thing to say against is that there wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough of Sunshine, enough of her friends and family, enough of the background, enough of Con. In the end it felt like a lot more could have been said and a lot more could have been learnt. One can hope that this is only the beginning of a series.
Thea: If you couldn’t tell already, I found the narrative style both intriguing and incredibly frustrating. Too much of a good thing, in my opinion. By the second half of the book, I was growing oh so tired with Sunshine’s nonstop musings and anecdotes. Had the book been 100-200 pgs shorter, it would have been much better, in my opinion. There probably is a good 100 pgs where nothing happens, and is relegated to Sunshine thinking about things. Waaay too much for me. Not that I am an ADD reader, but the stream of consciousness thing needs some action to keep my interest, especially when you’re 300 pages deep and there is no end in sight. The final fight only takes about 20-30 pages in comparison, so…you get the picture.
So far as Sunshine’s identity is concerned, she goes through a bunch of changes, first remembering her parentage, and then later reconciling her different “selves” (sun/tree, animal, dark). The first revelations of who she really is and her abilities as the daughter of the great Onyx Blaise is captivating. I loved the flashbacks she had with her grandmother, and her later worries about becoming a “dark cross”. Things get a bit confusing with the tree/deer/dark self ponderings (which she ponders at great length), and again had this been cut down a bit, it would have been much more effective.
And…unfortunately, I could give a hoot about her and about Con (who is more of a side character, as everyone is a side character to Sunshine and her thoughts). Sure, I wanted them to “win” at the end, but I didn’t have a real connection to either of them.
Here’s the best way to put it: Sunshine kinda felt like that one girl who talks incessantly about herself every time you see her–which is cool in small doses because she does lead an interesting life, and you keep her around as a friend for that reason. But imagine you are stuck with her on a looooong road trip, no other passengers, no breaks, and she won’t stop with the stories. By the third hour together, all you want to do is grab her by the neck and tell her to shuddufugup.
That’s how I felt about Sunshine by the end of the book.
Notable quotes/ Parts:
Ana: I hope I will not come across as a horny teenager but I LOVED the almost-sex between Sunshine and Con. I thought it was hot and funny. Actually I loved all encounters between Sunshine and Con – how she could not understand how he could be so cool and calm. How she thought her feelings for him. Their conversations were hilarious: because she was so human and he was not.
Her thoughts whenever she was next to him were so funny. For example, I keep remembering this bit, further down the road, after they almost get it on, when they touch hands, this is what comes to her mind and it’s a perfect example of the awesomeness of both Sunshine and the writer: “His fingers curled around mine. I had a Senssurround Dolby flash of the Ten Seconds That Didn’t Go Anywhere, but I hit the mental censor button and it went poof” LOL.
Thea: My favorite parts of the book are in the lake house, with Sunshine chained to one wall and Con chained to the other. Her initial description of Con as a vampire had me in giggles, especially when she compares him to a bag of mushrooms you have in the fridge, and you can’t really decide if they are still good, or if you should just toss them.
The almost-sex scene came out of nowhere for me–I actually did a double take when I read “and then his dick got hard” (no joke). It creeped me out. I mean…he’s dead. Con is dead, and not human, and looks like an old mushroom. Ick. Plus Con acts like a robot the whole time…just…weird. Didn’t work for me.
Ana: 8 Excellent. An easy read, funny and scary at times and which I highly recommend.
Thea: 6 Good, Recommend with Reservations. I loved the first half of the book, it moved quickly and I couldn’t wait to read more (I would have easily given it an 8 rating at that point). The second half took me forever to slog through, and even if Sunshine was convincing as a character and the narrative unique, I can’t give it higher than a 6 because the overall reading experience was so frustrating.