Warm in the Dark: Robin McKinley's 'Sunshine'

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley. Have a long flight coming up? It’s 389 pages.

Reluctant Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fans will find themselves amused and bemused by this unusual and unique book from Newbery Medal Winner McKinley, who is famous for her tales of heroines and dragons. This book has something in common with that, for as we discovered in McKinley’s earlier Newbery Award winner, The Hero and the Crown, heroines can be found anywhere — even in bakers with only a high-school education.

This book is beautifully described, tautly written, and a gift for those suffering either from Buffy withdrawal, or from the idea of the Buffy show not really making much sense. This “universe” is a familiar one — Earth, sometime, but the rules governing it are spelled out clearly, the ‘whys’ of vampires casually roaming the world tacks the books down more into reality. That’s helpful, because bouncing between reality and ‘elsewhere’ is how this book spends most of its time.

Rae “Sunshine” Seddon is a baker who just made it out of high school by the skin-of-her-teeth, who just moved out of her mother’s house, and who just wants to get away, for awhile, from the overwhelming, overweeningly large and loving family she’s inherited from being the best baker at Charlie’s, the coffeehouse her stepdad owns. She just needs a breather… but it almost costs her her life. In truth, it does cost her her life — at least the life she thought she was supposed to live — and catapults her into a new life altogether, complete with blood, gore, and a really, REALLY cold Byronic-ly handsome vampire, the antithesis of her very warm and human boyfriend. Oh, the symbolism.

The question many YA readers will have is, despite its YA author, is this really a YA book? Discussion always rages about sex and sexuality in YA books. There are sexual situations in this book. McKinley briefly feeds that vampire-attack, completely-helpless-take-me-now obsession. However, the sensuality works. It’s not forced or shoehorned in for effect, it’s just that this girl’s life is different from many eighteen-year-olds. She’s on her own, the society in which she lives is decidedly dangerous, and she makes the choices she makes and takes the partner she takes …naturally. From a reader who always scrutinizes sexuality in YA novels, I guess this is a grudging nod that McKinley got it right.

It’s difficult for me to effectively critique fantasy novels. Is the story plausible? Well, no… it’s fantasy. However, the characters are accurately drawn, I’m able to suspend disbelief long enough to get into the tale, and the end, though unsatisfying, is only so because I want a sequel. It’s a compelling world – McKinley is excellent at creating universes in which the reader wants to live (and did you EVER want to live near Buffy? I don’t THINK so…).

Fantasy/horror/sci-fi fans – you’ll like this. I think. Buffy fans in recovery — it may just send you into relapse. Be warned.

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