I do not know what I have given you tonight…
My strange and frustrating relationship with the books of Robin McKinley continues. Pretend that there’s a picture hanging on your wall. Everyone who sees it raves about it: the colours, the texture, the composition, the style. People want copies of it so that they can pass it around. Everyone loves staring at it for hours on end. But as try as you might, and as much as you can recognize the skill that went into painting it, it just doesn’t appeal to you. You’re not even sure why, so you keep staring at it in a futile attempt to find out. Such is my relationship with McKinley’s books.
I know she’s a good writer. She’s got the fans and the awards to prove it. Clearly I’m the person with the problem, right? And yet try as I might, and as much as I want to, I just can’t connect with her characters or her stories. The secret ingredient is missing, but I keep on reading, in the hopes that I might find it. After Sunshine, I think it’s time to just throw in the towel.
We were off to a great start. The first-person narrator, Rae Seddon (aka Sunshine) has a normal enough existence as a baker in her stepfather’s coffeehouse, despite the fact that she lives in a semi-post-apocalyptic world set after a period referred to as “the Voodoo Wars.” Whatever they were, they were clearly detrimental to humankind, as now the world has to deal with the existence of Others: dark creatures such as demons, vampires and weres, which in turn are monitored and controlled by an agency called SOF (Special Other Forces).
Though she’s always been fascinated by the supernatural, Sunshine’s true calling in life is baking (have you heard about her cinnamon rolls?) and she’s more or less contented with her lot in life. Her story begins one evening when she decides to drive out to the lake, only to be kidnapped by a gang of vampires, dressed in a red silk gown, forcibly marched to an abandoned mansion, and shackled to the wall.
The plot thickens when Sunshine realizes that she has company: a vampire, who is likewise held in captivity for reasons she cannot fathom. There’s no doubt that she’s been brought there for him to feed on, but he seems curiously uneager to go through with it. Come sunrise, it’s clear that the two of them need to work together if they’re going to escape, possible only if Sunshine can call upon her latent powers inherited from her father’s side of the family.
Well, it’s a fascinating original premise and in the current oversaturation of the vampire genre, this can only be construed as a good thing. McKinley has some other intriguing ideas at work throughout the novel, such as the dichotomy of Sunshine’s innate abilities. Since opposites attract, the fact that she draws her strength from light means that she has an affinity with creatures of darkness, as well as a unique power over them. In the same vein, her peaceful apartment and the busy coffeehouse in which she works are pools of light, warmth and tranquillity in a dark and dangerous world — whenever she moved away from them, I realized later that I was subconsciously urging her to return.
Likewise, I loved the fact that the SOF was actually made up of several individuals that had Other blood in them, all of whom were aware that their current stalemate with vampires after the war is unsustainable. Once Sunshine returns from her two-day disappearance, they are inevitably very interested in her whereabouts, especially since there is no record of anyone ever escaping the clutches of vampires. Feeling unfathomable loyalty to her own vampire (called Constantine, or Con for short) Sunshine decides to fake amnesia, but knows that the vampires who kidnapped her in the first place are still out there. With a neck wound that won’t heal, her dormant powers manifesting, SOF closing in, (and so many cinnamon rolls to bake!) it becomes clear as the novel progresses and she and Con are once more going to have to team up in order to survive.
Yeah, it still sounds really good, but at some point after Sunshine and Con escape the lakeside house, it just lost me. I think it was mainly to do with Sunshine’s inner monologue. First-person narration is always a risky business, as it can inevitably make the protagonist seem whiny, self-pitying and ego-centric. Bella Swan, anyone? Sunshine doesn’t quite fall into that level of interminable annoyance, but Sunshine’s thought process is still rather maddening. She’s repetitive, rambling, and prone to go off on obscure tangents about the most irrelevant minutiae of her life. When she’s not obsessing over cinnamon rolls, she’s sharing exposition dumps with the reader (or someone, it’s never quite clear who she’s meant to be addressing) or interrupting what could have been interesting dialogue with other characters. She appears to have an extremely short attention span, as her thoughts are constantly flitting from one thing to another, leaving me with the image of her staring into space for long periods of time as other characters stand around waiting for her to come back to earth to finish up the conversations that were started five pages ago.
For every two pages of action, there’s at least ten of Sunshine participating in internal dialog with herself, and her fixation on cinnamon rolls is so pronounced that I honestly thought that it was leading up to a plot point. Like perhaps Bo the evil bad vampire would be killed with cinnamon rolls, as I could see no other reason why they kept being brought up.
The structure of the book is also a little odd. There are no chapters, just four parts, and as such it can be difficult finding a “resting place” when you need a break. There are quite a few threads left dangling at the end of the book. Among others, we never learn what happened to Sunshine’s father and grandmother, get no real explanation as to what the history between Con and Bo was (or why Con was tied up in the mansion in the first place), no understanding of Sunshine’s boyfriend’s tattoos, or the nature of several of the Others, or resolution to the key relationships in the book. In her blog, it’s clear that McKinley is fed up with people asking for a sequel to wrap up some of these issues, and states that not explaining everything is true to real life.
Fair enough. But books aren’t real life. I can handle a few enigmatic loose ends that suggest there are more things in heaven and earth than cinnamon rolls, but I also know that it’s probably not a good idea to raise a plethora of questions that go unanswered. Readers will inevitably want closure to the plot points that are raised, and feel cheated when they don’t get them.
The book’s setting of an alternative world/dystopian future is intriguing and comes complete with its own history, rules and slang, but since it is explored through Sunshine’s point of view, it never spreads beyond her restricted point of view and I couldn’t help but feel that most of the really interesting stuff was purposefully being withheld (we never get a clear idea of what “bad spots” are, beyond the fact that they’re… well, bad). The main villain, who goes by the not-particularly intimidating name of Beauregard, is completely flat. We get no sense of what he wants or how he plans to get it, and is dealt with in an incredibly anti-climactic scene that is anti-climactic precisely because we never learn what the deal with him was.
Ultimately, Sunshine just felt messy to me. The structure and tone was erratic and awkward, the stream-of-consciousness narrative got tiresome, and most of the time I simply couldn’t understand what was going on. Maybe I just don’t get Robin McKinley. I sincerely wish I did, because I feel like I’m missing out on a real talent, not to mention being a rather unhelpful reviewer. All in all, if you like eclectic stories chock-a-block full of ideas and charm, then Sunshine may well be right up your alley. If you’re looking for a typical normal-girl-meets-mysterious-vampire romance, then this won’t scratch that itch — there’s very little in the way of vampires or romance, it’s better described as a young woman dealing with how her own growing power relates to the threatening world in which she lives. Maybe it’s best described as one of Sunshine’s own cooking experiments — a whole lot of ingredients put together that forms a strange concoction, though you’ll never know whether you like it until you try it for yourself.
Now, I have to go sate my mysterious craving for a cinnamon roll.