A single solitary sunbeam that Caravaggio would be proud of falls through an offscreen window, partially illuminating a young woman in the remains of a nice red dress. The line of her leg draws you down to a cruel shackle clasped around her ankle, the chain running off into the darkness. Most of the image is in shades of darkness, allowing you to only focus on the woman. At the top, gold lettering proclaims that Robin McKinley is responsible for the work within. Below, hovering just above the woman, the word Sunshine is scrawled in metallic red.
I think we all know that this is a vampire book, even if I don’t want to photograph the poor, abused, library book.
There’s a “type” of covers that signify vampire books. They are often very dark, or dark with a small amount of light. The settings tend to be baroque or gothic, and characters tend to be well-dressed if they appear. Red is a dominant color, or a common choice for the title text. If a vampire appears in the image, it’s not in a way that shows their fangs or inhumanity. The book’s appearance is just on the tasteful side…where romances tend to be just a bit beyond.
I knew nothing about Sunshine when I picked it up off the library shelf three weeks ago. Really, I saw the name Robin McKinley, and that was enough. I paused long enough to take in the cover, recognize that this was almost certainly a vampire book, and continued on my way to check out. I am still glad that my first McKinley novel was Beauty, because it made a favorable imprssion on me in every way from the title to the rose motif, to the first line of the synopsis. If it had been Sunshine, I’m not sure I would have become so inclined to pick up anything and everything with McKinley’s name on it.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a great book and I need my own copy. I just went online to slap it on my amazon wishlist against a future purchase and I saw a couple different cover variants. Neither of which is anywhere as evocative as the library’s copy. That’s one for the library and oversized paperbacks. We all know that I prefer mass market paperbacks, but in this case the cover is just…ugh, it’s great.
Like the other McKinley books I’ve read, Sunshine is told in the first person. However, it’s some time before we actually learn the protagonist’s name. We learn first about the world as she’s defined it through Charlie’s Coffeehouse where she works. Charlie is her stepfather, and he and her mom have two boys together who are a teenager and a bit younger than that. The protagonist is their big sister and twenty-five. Her parents split up when she was six. Oh and there’s magic and stuff in this world.
All of the McKinley books I’ve read have been set in some other version of the world that has magic and fantastical creatures. However, Dragonhaven and Sunshine are such that you can be fooled into thinking it’s the real world if you’re not paying attention. Especially Sunshine. Yes, a lot of terminiology and especially locations have different names. “Combox” instead of “computer” is an easy one, but for the most part, you can easily imagine your local hipster coffee shop in Charlie’s stead.
But there is magic and stuff here. Our protagonist (Rae Seddon)’s mom tends to buy wards for her when she’s concerned, though Rae tends to stick them in her glove compartment and forget about them. There are three main kinds of Others that people are concerned with and might want to ward themselves against. Vampires are the biggest, and it’s rumored that they control a fifth of the world’s total wealth. They were once human but are no longer and you cannot ever think of them as being human. Weres are were-any animal, but there are drugs that can prevent the change and many of them hide in ordinary human society. They can also have kids the normal way, same as demons. Demons are the last category of Other and they’re really a catch-all. If it’s not a vampire and it’s not a Were, it’s a demon. Oh and apparently about ten years ago was something called the Voodoo Wars wherein humans fought Others and won…breathing space.
Anyway, the story really starts when Rae goes off by herself and is kidnapped by vampires. Which is where the story would end if this was the normal course of things for this world. But then there wouldn’t be a book. And things get much more convoluted and intense the longer it goes on. There are four sections to the book, and I’m only briefly touching on the first.
It’s a hero’s journey all right, but more in the sense of personal advancement and understanding than anything else. Rae needs to understand and come to terms with who and what she is, which is more than she’d let herself believe for so many years. But also to get up at 4am to make cinnamon rolls. Because that’s her job. Well, she runs the bakery in the coffeehouse. So she makes more than just cinnamon rolls the size of your head. But man do they sound good!
THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Okay so, Rae’s birth name is not Rae Seddon, especially since Seddon is Charlie’s last name, and he’s just her stepdad. No, her real name is Raven Blaise, and you better believe that the Blaise family is full of sorcerors of some kind. Her father is (was? never confirmed dead or alive) Onyx Blaise who was seemingly the best of the best or something like that. We never get a huge amount of detail on that, just that the families of this sort tend to be rather inbred by this point, but Rae’s mom is an outsider with no magic whatsoever, hence there was a lot of fallout from both families about that marriage.
Rae herself is a mage, and was taught how to use her power to transmute (a “stuff-changer”) by her grandmother. It was just a brief lessoning when she was ten. The most interesting part of Rae’s magic is her element: sunlight. She literally draws strength from sunlight. This also gives her an affinity for her element’s opposite. So while a water mage can cross a desert more easily, an air mage hold their breath longest…a sunlight mage could very well have an affinity for vampires.
This is fascinating to me, and a great concept. Not to mention the story itself. But I think asking a vampire what orange juice tastes like to them and getting the answer “It tastes like orange juice” is one of the funniest lines in the entire book.