Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors, so I was pleased to be able to include one of her novels in my study of the paranormal genre. Sunshine is a little unusual for the genre in both its tone and in the fact that it is a standalone novel. It is an “open-world” novel, where humans know that vampires exist. It won the: Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature (Retrieved July 19, 2009 from http://www.mythsoc.org/awards/winners)
Author: Robin McKinley
ISBN-10: 0425191788 ISBN-13: 9780425191781
City and Publisher: New York: Berkley
Copyright Date: 2003
Author’s Website: http://www.robinmckinley.com/
Reader’s Annotation: Sunshine is the baker at her family’s coffeehouse, where her specialties are cinnamon rolls as big as your head and Bitter Chocolate Death. When she slips out to have some alone time at her family’s cabin on the lake (abandoned since the Voodoo Wars), a gang of vampires attempts to feed her to their captured rival and she finds out she has a few more affinities than just with baked goods.
Plot Summary: Sunshine has worked as the baker in her stepfather’s coffee house since she was sixteen. She spends her time making cinnamon rolls as big as your head and rich desserts with names like Death of Marat and Bitter Chocolate Death. While it is a life that suits her, she nonetheless one night feels too restless for family movie Monday and heads out to her parents’ cabin on the lake. It is an area mostly destroyed and deserted since the Voodoo Wars, a period of time about ten years past when vampires tired of being persecuted by human laws wreaked a lot of havoc. She is captured by a gang of vampires who attempt to feed her to their captured rival. Sunshine instead forges an unlikely (and seemingly unnatural) alliance with Constantine, who is a different sort of vampire but still a vampire. Returning to her normal life becomes impossible, as Sunshine must deal with her new circumstances and her new self.
Critical Evaluation: Robin McKinley is a master at balancing detail with broad plot strokes, creating a world that is achingly familiar yet entirely foreign, like a marvelously complete and exciting dream. Sunshine is a character that readers will want to be; who wouldn’t want to be the creator of such marvelous things as the Caramel Cataclysm and Killer Zebras, have a kindly tattooed biker boyfriend, and draw strength from the sun? The world and the characters are the strength of this book.
This is not to say the plot is weak. The plot is largely internal; it primarily deals with Sunshine’s struggle to define herself as her place in the world changes and the buried secrets of her heritage surface. There is a villain and there are characters who may be villains, and these details intertwine with McKinley’s unfolding description of the world. The climax, in which Sunshine and Con defeat Con’s vampire enemy, a bad vampire in a world where there is only one possibly good vampire, has more to do with Sunshine dealing with her own internal struggle than with any kung fu moves or general thrilling actions. McKinley’s strength is creating an interesting world and characters, rather than weaving a tight-knit story. The sum of Sunshine seems to leave the door open for a sequel, and readers used to paranormal series may be frustrated by the loose ends and possibilities that remain after the book is finished. However, other readers may enjoy that there is such fertile fodder for further imagining. Sunshine will occupy the mind long after it has been set down.
Reading Level/Interest: Age 16 and up
Curriculum Ties: Sunshine is a great pleasure read. It would also be an interesting inclusion as a somewhat anomalous novel in units on fantasy or post-apocalyptic visions.
Booktalking Ideas: Bring in giant cinnamon rolls to share and read the above plot summary.
Beasties and Supernatural Elements: Psychic Powers, Witches and Warlocks, Vampires, Werewolves, Fairies
Influences from Other Genres: Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Challenge Issues: McKinley has written this novel for adults and there are a few adult moments. Sunshine is frank but not gratuitous when she mentions in passing the potential sexual abilities of male vampires. She also has pre-marital sex with her boyfriend and at one point travels by magic and ends up landing naked on top of her ally Con, although they stop before anything is fully consummated. This novel may not be appropriate for teens under 16 or so but most teens know about sex and many know quite a bit more about it than this book describes. Sunshine is also in her mid twenties, which may make her activities a bit more acceptable to parents.
About the Author: Robin McKinley wrote her first novel in 1978. Her books are primarily in the fantasy genre. She is married to the writer Peter Dickinson, and they live in England with two “hellhounds.” (More details at http://www.robinmckinley.com/bio.php)