by Robin McKinley

Cover image

Publisher: Jove
Copyright: October 2003
Printing: December 2004
ISBN: 0-515-13881-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 405

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The world is mostly like ours, except vampires, weres, demons, and similar paranormal creatures exist. Humanity is in open warfare with some of them, particularly vampires. The heroine is an apparently normal woman who has a run-in with vampires at the start of the book and discovers previously unexpected hidden talents. She develops a strange bond with a vampire and becomes the key to winning a battle against the forces of darkness.

It all sounds horribly familiar. In a market glutted with urban fantasy and vampire romance, one can hardly turn around in a book store without knocking a book with a similar description off a shelf. But don't skip on to the next review yet. Sunshine isn't what you might expect. Most books of this sort aren't written by a Newbery Medal winner and four-time Mythopoeic Award nominee. They don't win the Mythopoeic Award. And they certainly don't have a cover quote from Neil Gaiman calling the book "pretty much perfect."

On paranormal plot side, Sunshine doesn't diverge too far from the common formula, but it's exceptionally well-implemented. Sunshine's unexpected powers are subtle and unusual, not just another variation on stock magic or were capabilities. McKinley also avoids making her vampires stock sex objects and instead describes a deeply uncanny creature that's far more frightening than it is attractive. Vampires move wrong and think differently, they perceive difference and connection in a way foreign to humanity, and they are not at all pleasant to be around. The bond the protagonist develops doesn't follow the normal patterns, and while there's an edge of dangerous romance, it's decidedly twisted, subtle, and never loses the feeling of foreignness and alienness.

More exceptional is the world that McKinley builds around the standard trappings. There's more depth, detail, history, and intriguing corners in this single novel than in most whole series. This is a world still recovering from a highly destructive war, and at first the paranormal feels like it might be recent, but McKinley slowly reveals a deep history. For example, horses used to be put down if they couldn't maintain a particular speed, since movement makes warding almost impossible but is inherently one of the best defenses against vampires. Horses that moved slower were bait. In Sunshine's more modern world, people put substantial engineering work into finding ways to build wards into a car, but movement is still the best defense.

There is a complex system of magic only hinted at, one that Sunshine only touches by changing objects, and which gives rise to a system of wards and charms that has enough depth to be a book in its own right. Genetics plays an important role in both Sunshine's worries and some of the prejudices of the world. Sunshine's boyfriend has intriguing tattoos whose purpose are never entirely explained. There's a remarkable amount of stuff here, and it all fits together and builds a coherent picture of an alternative world in which people have to constantly think about their magical defenses and weave them into even mass-manufactured objects.

But that world background, however wonderful, is not the reason why this book shines.

Sunshine has, like most of the protagonists of this sort of story, a normal life outside of the paranormal world. She's a baker in a diner in a bad part of town, a cafe run by her mother and step-father. Unlike most of these stories, this isn't background that disappears as soon as the vampires start showing up; in fact, the vampires come first and then we see Sunshine's normal life. The cafe is a delightful nexus of family and neighborhood connections, full of people who Sunshine cares deeply about and helps the reader care about as well. Sunshine loves her job as a baker, even getting up at 3:30 in the morning to start the morning baking before the customers arrive. She's trying to train a new baker, occasionally clashing with her controlling mother, is dating another cook in the diner (who is one of the best renditions of the understanding and quiet boyfriend that I've ever seen), and lives her life in and around the cafe. That life is fully, lovingly, and compellingly described and is startlingly good reading.

At times in the story, Sunshine wants nothing more than to ignore the whole paranormal world and just return to her life as a baker. This is a standard trope in this sort of book, usually immediately followed by readerly eye-rolling and desire for the author to get on with it, since the normal life is usually obviously inferior, uninteresting, and clearly not something that the character is destined to pursue. McKinley turns this completely on its head. This is the first time I've not only agreed with a character who wants to return to her normal life but would have quite happily read about her living that life and considered it as interesting, albeit much different, as the paranormal side of the story. That's an amazingly difficult trick to pull off, and McKinley succeeds not because the paranormal side of the story is uninteresting. Her descriptions of Sunshine's life, human connections, and delights are just that good.

This means that Sunshine has a balance that's almost never present in urban fantasy, one in which both sides of the world are fully realized and can interact in complicated ways on their own terms. This adds remarkable depth and emotional impact to the story. Sunshine doesn't entirely avoid the angst trap, but that grounding and reader appreciation for the life she might lose gives it impact and makes it feel less like whining. She's also a competent, forthright, courageous, and very likeable character, the sort of character who is easy to care about and with whom one is happy to spend an entire book, one whose choices the reader can respect. Couple this with vampires who are more like well-written SF aliens than the typical characters of dark romance (and McKinley brilliantly embeds a dime-novel romance literature in the story that highlights the contrast between typical vampires and her version), and one has the best-written, best-characterized, and deepest urban vampire story I've ever read.

This is, also unusually, a stand-alone novel with a definite conclusion. There's room for a sequel, and certainly room in the world-building for considerably more plot, but it hasn't yet appeared. I'd snatch it up in an instant if it ever did. But in the meantime you can rest assured that you're getting a complete story, not a teaser for a dozen books.

Even if you hate the current flood of paranormal romance and urban fantasy books, look for this one. It's a shining example of how an excellent writer can weave those ideas into a compelling, multi-faceted story rather than a litany of cliches. And if you already like that genre, Sunshine is unmissable, although it may spoil you for the less well-written version. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-12-21

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