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Cynthia Van Auken

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Heavy on Sugar, Light on Spice
By Cynthia Van Auken   
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, September 09, 2010
Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2010

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A Review of Robin McKinley's "Sunshine." WARNING: SPOILERS

I started reading Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.  I had read and loved McKinley’s Rose Daughter and even more so Beauty. So when I was searching for a new read, I searched through her list of other works and found Sunshine. A first-person narrative involving vampires… Twilight was my first thought.  Maybe one day, since I loved a few of McKinley’s other works.  And then while on, I saw that the book was out of print, naturally, I had to have it.  Now generally, I hate first-person narratives and I think vampires are vastly overrated, but I thought I’d step out of my usual genre (sword and sorcery) and try something new. 

As Sunshine opens, we find the heroine describing her world, a perfectly ordinary town and a perfectly ordinary job as a baker. You would have no idea that vampires are central to the story, until she describes her capture.  The first part of the story details her two nights spent in a mansion chained to a wall and waiting to be devoured by the vampire across from her.  It’s in these two nights that we learn the girl’s name, Rae (nick-named Sunshine), and her extraordinary heritage as a magic handler whose element is—surprise—sunshine.  The vampire across from her, Constantine, is also a prisoner who is supposed to feed on Rae, but he hasn’t moved to touch her.  When Rae finds a way to escape, she offers to take Con with her… who decides it’s worth the risk. They escape together in the light of day, with Rae using her abilities to protect Con from burning.  He never attacks her and they part ways.

In part two, Rae suffers from a wound that won’t heal, a wound inflicted while imprisoned.  Upon some whim, she decides to call into the night for Constantine to help her. And he finds a way to heal her.  In a strange ritual, Rae is given the “clean” blood of a doe and is then given the ability to see in the dark (which causes strange effects on normal daylight vision).  This same night, Constantine reveals that they are bonded and are under threat from Beauregard, the vampire who had originally imprisoned them.  Rae had figured this out previously, when one of the vampires had appeared in her town.  Oddly, and impossibly, she was able to stake the vampire with a table knife.  According to Constantine, they would soon be facing Beauregard and certain destruction, since you couldn’t really say a vampire could die.  After a few months pass without word from Constantine, Rae begins to worry about him and goes to him, through nowheresville.  They collide with each other, her waking him from something beyond undeath, and they find themselves in a “compromising” (unclothed) situation. Her sudden desire for him is smothered out, however, when Constantine throws her against the wall.  He explains that she didn’t know what it was she was asking. 

The remainder of the tale leads into the battle.  As vampires swarm from all sides, Constantine becomes a viscous, murderous beast.  As he rips the assailants apart, Rae discovers she can destroy vampires with her own hands… which in the end, is what she uses to pull Beauregard’s evil heart from his chest.  This act, that she touched evil, Rae feels her hands have become tainted, but Constantine tells her that there is nothing wrong with her.  In the end, their friendship continues on and they go into the night together (which isn’t how it sounds).

The story is stuffed with pages about the goings on of Charlie’s bakery and the Special Other Forces (SOF) and their drive to protect humans by fighting vampires. And in between the small amount of story and overly sweet filling, there’s the fluff of detail. Detail about night vision and its strange effects on day vision, such as seeing through shadows.  Details about a vampire’s ability to control bodily functions that living humans can’t. Details about how impossible it is to describe a vampire.

While I found myself impressed with the details that no one ever bothers to answer, I found it odd the lack of details regarding recipes (since most of the book involves baking) and the vampire battle at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful the violence wasn’t overly explicit.  I simply found it odd, considering what was detailed, for example, the explicit language and sex (or more accurate, almost-sex) in the middle of the book.  It was completely unnecessary and made no sense.  It added absolutely nothing to the story, but the idea that the vampire-human relationship would grow romantically.  When it didn’t, the ending of the book felt oddly unfinished and unnatural.  Perhaps that’s why it was left open, so the reader could turn it into what they wanted.  On the other hand, I’m kind of grateful it didn’t become another clichéd vampire romance.  After all, we had to avoid the break up between Rae and her barely there boyfriend.

I found all the talk about the bakery repetitive and boring.  Mixed with the run on sentences and sentences in sentences, I often got lost. That’s a main reason for my dislike of first-person narratives.  I understand that you want to write how people speak, but the reader should be able to follow easily.  All in all, when the story got going it was interesting and not completely predictable, but it could have been shorter than the almost 400 pages.  There was a lot of detail where there could have been more story.  Sunshine is an airy pastry filled with sugar to rot your teeth, but not enough spice to add flavor.


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