'I never heard them coming. Of course you don't, when they're vampires.'
This isn't the opening line in Sunshine by Robin McKinley, but it is the statement that heralds the beginning of Sunshine's journey from professional baker at Charlie's Coffeehouse to someone ... different. Here is where we begin to peer into the abyss, pulled into an alternate universe where the Voodoo Wars have leveled entire cities, leaving haunted places known as 'bad spots' emitting leftover psychic malevolence like a leaky radioactive core. This is a world of charms and protective wards, fetches and something called a 'comehither' designed to draw a sorcerer's strength to him/her, of magichandlers, a world in which 'others' like vampires, weres, demons, ghouls, sprites, incubi/succubi are just part and parcel of everyday life. This statement is also a pretty good barometer in judging exactly what kind of vampires populate New Arcadia. More on them in a bit. I've heard lots of good things about Sunshine and some not so good, but after reading a post at Dear Author on sequels you wish would be written, I knew I had to read this book. Like some of those mixed reviews/comments I've read of Sunshine, so too was my overall impression - things I loved and things I didn't.
One of the things I did love was Robin McKinley's take on vampires. Here, vampires do not sparkle a la Twilight. They do not wear leather and chains or drive great big honking SUVs or have names like Tehrror etc. These vampires do not have delicate features and whisper 'ma petite' soothingly like Jean-Claude. Nor do they bear any resemblance to the tormented Angel of Buffy fame although the nasty sadistic deeds of his alter ego, Angelus, come pretty close. But without the pretty face. New Arcadia vampires fall more in line with Nosferatu, Kurt Barlow in Salem's Lot, and maybe a little I Am Legend nastiness all mixed together, but even that is an inadequate description. They really are the monster skulking in the shadows under your bed or in your closet.
Before the wars, vampires were the most 'coherently and comprehensively legislated against' of all 'the Big Three, major-league Other Folk.' In fact, the origins of the Voodoo Wars has its roots in the fact that vampires, tired of being singled out, 'created a lot of vampires that they left for us humans to look after, and then organized them— somehow— into a wide-scale breakout.' This is Sunshine's world, a post apocalyptic place in which the darkest of the dark 'others', vampires, are 'technically illegal', still hated and hunted for reasons that sound familiar today in this world. They are, in part, reviled for being more clever than other supernatural creatures, having more wealth. Undoubtedly, they are powerfully compelling beings and worse they have no way to 'pass' for human (and probably no desire to do so) as some 'others' do, and that may be the root of such unrelenting hatred by the humans.
So the suckers are right, humans do hate them in a single-mindedly committed way that is unlike our attitude to any of the other major categories of Others. But it’s hardly surprising. Vampires hold maybe one-fifth of the world’s capital and they’re a race incontestably apart. Humans don’t like ghouls and lamias either, but the rest of the undead don’t last long, they’re not very bright, and if one bites you, every city hospital emergency room has the antidote (supposing there’s enough of you left for you to run away with). The global council periodically tries to set up “talks” with vampire leaders in which they offer an end to persecution and legal restriction and an inexhaustible supply of pigs’ blood in exchange for a promise that the vampires will stop preying on people.(14)
Unlike weres and demons who can camouflage their non-human qualities, vampires are 'Other' in every way: the way they look, smell, move, laugh, and talk. Sunshine is repulsed by their 'metallic tang' smell', their laughter made the hair on [her] arms stand on end,' and the sound of their voices was 'peculiar', 'awful' and devoid of any clue if the speaker is male or female. The vampires who kidnap her are frightening also because of the way they seem to blend into the shadows of the night, indistinguishable and undetectable until a form separates itself from the shadows. They slither, drift and flow like a serpent. It's well known that to look into their eyes means certain death, and then there's the 'Breath':
'They’d put some kind of Breath over me. I knew that vampires don’t have to stoop to blunt instruments or something on a handkerchief clapped over your face. They can just breathe on you and you are out cold.' (17)
So the vampires are scary, deadly threatening presences instead of your garden-variety romantic, tortured, misunderstood but cursed anti-heroes, and I really loved their twisted fascinating, compelling alienness. The worldbuilding is detailed and well-thought out. I know that a blink is the monetary unit in this world, that there is a global council to govern, legislate and police this world, that the insulting slang for transmuters (those who can change an object into another object) is 'stuff changer', that a sorcerer is also called a 'charm twister', that vampires are called 'suckers' for obvious reasons. I love the dichotomy of the Special Other Forces (SOF), a policing organization, whose sole responsibility and life's mission is to wipe out every vampire, being infiltrated with agents who are, in fact, 'Other.'
'The Special Other Forces exist to control, defeat, neutralize, or exterminate all Other threat to humans. That was easy and straightforward, and as a human it sounded— had sounded— pretty good to me, although at the same time I’d had a problem with the politics of anything Other defined as bad, which seemed to be the unofficial SOF motto. Now I was learning that in fact SOF was— apparently— full of partbloods, maybe fullbloods, and presumably Weres, and was clandestinely sympathetic to the registry dodgers.' (207)
However horrifying and monstrous these vampires are, the ones who kidnap her and take her to an abandoned house by the lake at New Arcadia are nothing when compared to their master's arch enemy Constantine, the other prisoner in the house. Sunshine, heretofore the best baker of New Arcadia, whose claim to fame is making the best cinnamon rolls, 'cinnamon rolls as big as your head', comes face-to-face with her worst nightmare, shackled to the wall and slated to be Con's next meal.
If the vampire gang is a slithering goblin-giggling group of strangeness, then Con is even more so, if that's possible. He's described as 'spidery', 'predatory', 'alien', with gray-green eyes 'like stagnant bog water', and skin 'the color of old mushrooms - the sort of mushrooms you find screwed up in a paper bag in the back of the fridge and try to decide if they’re worth saving or if you should throw them out now and get it over with.' His hair is black but 'lank and dull', and he is thin to the point of emaciation with 'cheekbones and ribs looking like they were about to split the old-mushroom skin' with huge hands, wrists, and feet. Though broad shouldered and tall is about the only human-sounding adjective Sunshine uses to describe her first impression of Con, he's clearly '[n]othing human except that he was more or less the right shape.' Even his voice sounds otherworldly:
'I flinched at the first sound of his voice, both because he had spoken at all, and also because his voice sounded as alien as the rest of him looked, as if the chest that produced it was made out of some strange material that did not reflect sound the same way that ordinary— that is to say, live— flesh did. His voice sounded much odder— eerier, direr— than the voices of the vampires who had brought me here. You could half-imagine that Bo’s gang had once been human. You couldn’t imagine that this one ever had.' (27)
Even more surprising than his alien appearance are the first words he speaks to her:
“Speak,” he said at last. “Remind me that you are a rational creature.” (27)
Imagine that. This creature Sunshine refers to as a 'muddle' of shadows, an 'it', not he or him, definitely not human, needs and wants to be reminded that she is not cattle for him to feed on, that she is a person who can reason, reflect, think, feel, and express her ideas. He's asking her basically to help him remember her humanity so that he can resist the pull to bleed her dry. Con is not being altruistic here. His reason has more to do with not allowing Bo, his arch enemy and another vampire, and the one responsible for his imprisonment, a victory. Bleeding her dry would be the same as lowering himself to Bo's mindless worship of torture and evil. But still, these words give Con a philosophical aspect to his character and it's part and parcel of his personality throughout and one of the things I loved about him. Constantine has an ingrained sense of honor and he doesn't torture people. He's still a vampire, an alien-looking creature to Sunshine. An old vampire, perhaps even a master, and yes, he's just as deadly as the goblin gigglers, but that's not all he is.
This blend of good and evil within Con, within everything in this book, is always beating beneath the surface of all the interactions between Con and Sunshine. Take, for instance, what Constantine does when Sunshine is overcome with emotion as she tells him about her mother; Charlie, her step-father; Mel, the cook and her lover; and her love of baking and feeding people concoctions like Killer Zebras, the Death of Marat, or her famous cinnamon buns.
And suddenly the vampire moved toward me. I froze, thinking, Oh no, and at last , and okay, at least my last thoughts are about everybody at the coffeehouse, but all he did was hold one of his big hands under my chin, so the tears would fall into his palm. I cried now from fear and anticipation as well as loss and sorrow, and my tears had made quite a little pool before I stopped. I stopped because I was too tired to go on, and my whole head felt squashy . I suppose I should have been flipping out. He was right next to me. He hadn’t moved again. When I stopped crying he lowered his hand and said calmly, “May I have your tears?” I nodded, bemused, and, very precisely and carefully, he touched my face with the forefinger of his other hand, wiping up the last drips. I was so braced for worse I barely noticed that this time a vampire really had touched me.
He moved back against the wall before he licked the wet finger and then drank the little palmful of salt water. I didn’t mean to stare but I couldn’t help it.
He wouldn’t have had to say anything. Maybe he’d liked the story of my life. “Tears,” he said. “Not as good as …” a really ugly ominous pause here“…but better than nothing.”(30)
I loved Sunshine, aka Rae Seddon, aka Raven Blaise, who is a transmuter, a magic handler, the daughter of a once powerful sorcerer, and who loves nothing better than being up to her 'elbows in bread dough and covered in flour' thumping it into bakery goodies like Jam Dandies, Fig Carousels, Chocolate Pinwheels, Death of Meringuamania, and Bitter Chocolate Death. Such wonderful names. (Seriously, I want those recipes!) I loved how her strength and power are based in light, specifically sunlight, but that her need for light also has an answering affinity for the dark, specifically one of the darkest 'Others', Constantine. I loved her journey from a character who still saw everything pretty much in black and white despite the alternate universe she lives in being peopled with supernatural creatures to a character who accepts those shades of gray at the end of this journey. If anything, Sunshine is a book about growing up, accepting the person - flaws and all - you are instead of futilely and frustratingly trying to be the person you think you should be, that others want you to be.
Things that were bothersome to me were not huge, but there were a few niggles. First, you the reader are inside Sunshine's head for 405 pages, and it's all in first person POV as well as in a stream of consciousness 'lite' style. This was frustrating at times for me because there were long, massive interruptions in the action for an info dump about something or someone who may or may not have anything to do with what was currently happening. It's like taking a road trip, and you're zipping along the highway when BAM! Suddenly you've come up on a road block or a forced to detour, or taken a wrong turn that lands you in a dead end. For example, one evening Sunshine is taking a break at the coffeehouse and hears a familiar goblin giggle. She recognizes the giggler as one of the gang that kidnapped her, grabs up a table knife, and bolts out into an alley to take care of business. But just as she slams the knife into the giggler, she goes off into a long inner dialogue on how her weapon of choice sucked, how a wrought iron stake works better but is heavier than, say, a wooden one. How stainless steel 'slithers off, like a swizzle stick on an ice cube', the physics of staking in just the right place with the right amount of force, a comparison of her technique as compared to SOF agent, and on and on and on. I just wanted her to get back to actually, you know, getting the vamp staked and on to what happens next. It left me a little disoriented at times which wasn't alleviated by the way the book is organized. There are no chapters, just four parts, so finding a stopping place to take a break was difficult at times.
Then there's the Big Bad known as Beauregard or Bo, the villain in this book. There was a tremendous buildup to her confrontation with him so I was ready for someone/thing that would be almost impossible to vanquish and if vanquished the cost to her and Con would be devastating. But after all was said and done, it felt a little anticlimactic.
The last problem has to do with all of the loose ends, questions left unanswered, by the end of Sunshine. I knew they were coming so I guess I shouldn't be so disappointed. But I am. What really happened to Sunshine's father and her grandmother during the Voodoo Wars? Exactly what heritage did Sunshine receive from her mother's side of her family? What exactly is the SOF Director, known only as 'the goddess of pain? What about Mel and his tattoos? What about her future with Mel? More importantly, what will her future relationship with Con be like? So. There will be no sequel to Sunshine according to Robin McKinley. But I have to ask: Why go to such depths and detail in worldbuilding and crafting such a well-rounded cast of characters only to leave a reader wondering what happens to them? I understand Robin McKinley is asked ad nauseum about a sequel, that she's tired unto death of that question. Her response is that the 'Story Council', a mythical body who sends stories her way, hasn't (and probably never will) delivered that story to her mailbox. I understand she likes 'loose ends' because life is full of loose ends so loose ends 'proficiently deployed, make a story feel like life.' This isn't real life. Sunshine is a book. It's damned good book. But it's still a book that feels unfinished as a whole because of those loose ends.