Robin McKinley's SUNSHINE (2003) begins as the first-person narrative of a young woman who works as a baker at her family's coffeehouse and has a sometimes difficult, although loving, relationship with her mother. In the opening scene, Rae (original name Raven, nicknamed Sunshine) decides she can't take the regular family Monday night movie gathering and instead drives out to the lake where her family owns a summer cabin (never used since the death of Sunshine's grandmother, the only relative on her vanished father's side she's had any contact with). McKinley writes Sunshine's voice in a rambling, chatty style that conveys tons of information about her background and daily life without making the pages of shameless exposition feel at all lumpy. She loves her baking, despite the predawn hours and odd schedules. She's fond of her stepfather, Charlie, and her half-siblings. She has a boyfriend, Mel, a tattooed motorcycle enthusiast who also works at the coffeehouse. She enjoys interacting with the customers, who resemble an extended family. She likes her eccentric landlady, who lives in the main part of a farmhouse where Sunshine rents an apartment on the third floor. We've learned all these facts about the protagonist by the time she gets to the lake. Then, on page 10, we hit the sentence, "When I was ten the Voodoo Wars started."
This novel takes place in an alternate world, similar to Charlaine Harris's and Laurell K. Hamilton's, where supernatural beings are publicly known to exist. This world's history seems to have diverged further from our own than the Harris and Hamilton versions, since some cities and countries have different names. In Sunshine's twentieth-century North America, people have apparently been aware of nonhuman creatures—collectively known as the Others—practically forever. All of them are regarded with suspicion, even angels (which are mentioned only in passing) and the occasional harmless races of demons, and many evoke outright fear and loathing. Vampires (aka "suckers") are considered the worst. At the time of the story, they control about one-fifth of the world. They have no interest in making a nonaggression pact with human governments, and even if they did, vampires have no central authority. McKinley's are what I think of as "Anne Rice vampires." They have left their humanity behind and have to make a special effort to "pass" for human. Their voices, eyes, skin, and superhumanly quick and silent movement give them away. They can drink animal blood but prefer human. They relish toying with their prey like cats and virtually always kill their victims. Sunlight destroys them, and they become more sensitive with age. Old vampires can't stand the slightest ray of moonlight (reasonably, since moonlight is reflected sunlight—this is the only work of fiction in which I've seen that premise). Very old ones can't risk exposing themselves under the open sky at all. A government department called the Special Other Forces—SOF—monitors the Others and strives to protect innocents from the more lethal ones, especially vampires. Even human magic-users are viewed warily and required to register with the government. Much of the country was devastated by the Voodoo Wars, leaving ruined cities and "bad places" tainted by magic. One bad place lies near Sunshine's family's lakefront cabin.
Since sensible people take advantage of whatever magical wards they can afford, and vampires generally avoid crowds, ordinary citizens are fairly safe as long as they stay away from dangerous areas after dark. Sunshine's solitary visit to the lake proves very unwise. A gang of vampires grabs her and imprisons her in a mansion adjacent to the tainted ground. She ends up shackled in a room with a captive vampire. The gang leader, Bo, expects the starving vampire, Con, to kill Sunshine. Con doesn't want to give his captor that satisfaction. He begs Sunshine to talk to him and keep him aware that she's a "rational creature." Although she finds him terrifying, he is the least of available evils, and they form an alliance. Recalling the seemingly trivial exercises in magic her grandmother taught her, Sunshine uses her skills to escape and get Con and herself to safety. This episode is only the beginning of her adventures. Because nobody escapes from vampires, and certainly nobody in her right mind would free a chained vampire, she decides to avoid questions by pretending she doesn't remember anything about her traumatic ordeal from the moment she reached the cabin until she made it home. However, two coffeehouse regulars, SOF agents, believe there's more to Sunshine than meets the eye. They're right: She learns her father was a powerful member of a prominent magical clan. SOF tries to recruit her. Bo remains a threat, and Con reappears in her life. Sunshine develops magical gifts she never suspected she possessed. She finds that several people she knows are more than they appear, including her two SOF friends. The division between "human" and "Other" isn't so sharp after all.
SUNSHINE beautifully portrays ordinary people more or less contentedly living their mundane lives (symbolized for Sunshine by her specialty, cinnamon rolls) while horrors lurk on the edges of their world. Although the vampire, Con, is a more vivid and intriguing character than her boyfriend, Mel, and she shares some erotically charged moments with Con, this novel isn't a vampire romance. It falls more into the category Jacqueline Lichtenberg calls Intimate Adventure, the growth of a relationship through challenges and risks. As she explains, "Instead of combat to the death on the field of Battle, the Protagonist must face trials and dangers, terrors and tests on the field of Intimacy." These trials may lead to romance (SUNSHINE hints at this outcome as a future possibility) or not. At the end of the story, Sunshine's relationship with Con is still evolving.
Margaret L. Carter
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