Robin McKinley’s Sunshine


…or why I’m going out of my way to read books I’ve never read before, and am almost certain to dislike: deciding which books to suggest to patrons “sight unseen” (based only on the description in sources such as Novelist) means that librarians will, on occasion, end up suggesting books that the patron won’t like. Finding out why patrons liked what they liked is only half the equation; the other half, of course, is being familiar with the books you’re suggesting, and that means reading books that I won’t like. Well, skimming them, anyway.

Based on the books’ summaries alone, readers might enjoy both Sunshine and A Discovery of Witches as they sound similar1. Both involve vampires. Both involve witches who’ve not used their power, coming into that power under duress. Both involve an alliance between the witch and a vampire, said relationship being frowned on in the extreme by both the vampires and the humans in each book’s milieu. Magic handlers in both worlds do magic with a component of psychic ability rather than straight spellwork, as in the Harry Potter universe, and both sets of magic handlers have an affinity with/use magic types which match the alchemical earth, air, fire, and water.

Despite surface appearances, the books are not particularly similar, despite having witches, vampires and demons. Sunshine barely squeaked through high school, while Bishop is an academician. Sunshine is more urban gothic, while A Discovery of Witches is rural romantic. Sunshine is set in North America, in one location exclusively–a neighborhood one step above outright slum in an overall grubby city, while A Discovery of Witches ranges from the hushed halls of the Bodleian library to chateaus in rural France, to picturesque New England villages straight out of Hawthorne. The writing styles are very different: A Discovery of Witches is largely third person dialogue and action with very little exposition or psychological background, while Sunshine is very much first person; we spend most of the book inside the titular character’s thoughts, fears and memories. In Sunshine, the magic handlers’ affinity determines to a great extent what they’re best at: people with an affinity for water and air do best as firefighters, as they never suffer smoke inhalation and water from their hoses always lands where it’s needed most to quench the flames. Sunshine has an affinity for daylight (fire plus air) and thus is best suited to combat vampires, who in this book are purely creatures of night’s darkness. Harkness’ witches’ spells/uses of magic (rather than the people themselves) fall into those four groups, and magicians have stronger talents for one group or another.

The vampires themselves are quite different. McKinley went with the stereotyped modern vampire; hers “eat” only blood and are active only at night–in fact, the older the vampire, the less light they can tolerate to the point that while the youngest vampires can go about on nights when a full moon shines, the very oldest can’t survive even a clear night sky. Starlight alone would kill them. Another touch I like in Sunshine is McKinley playing up the fact that vampires are humanity’s only natural predator: merely being in their presence is terrifying. This does make sense to me; mice freeze when a cat approaches, rabbits and deer flee when a dog approaches, sambal flee when a tiger approaches…and humans flee in terror from vampires. Nothing romantic about these creatures; as McKinley points out, “The reason why, when you were thirteen or fourteen, you outgrew your fascination with the idea that a vampire couldn’t do you unless you let him is that you began to take in the fact that shortly after you’d said, ‘Come and get me, big boy.’ you died.” (p. 243 hardcover 2003 edition.) Harkness’s vampires can move about in daylight as they please, hold down jobs in the human world, and even eat human food, though they don’t enjoy many dishes. At least neither of the authors went with the “sparkly” vampires.

Now for the plot summary, at long last: Sunshine begins when the protagonist, Sunshine, creeps away to her family’s cabin on a now deserted lake, and is captured by a gang of vampires to offer up to another vampire whom they’ve chained up in a nearby mansion2, named Constantine. Sunshine calls upon her long-suppressed magical talents to transmute her jackknife into a key and then to create a sort of invisible sunshade to protect the vampire from going poof in the daylight as they escape. It ends with the two taking on the gang opposing Constantine, very messily.

As the book unfolds, McKinley drops hints about this world, but no complete descriptions; the best I can piece together is that it’s a post-apocalyptic. alternate history future3. There was a massive war between vampires (and the magic handlers allied with them) and the rest of humanity, resulting in a significant loss of life all ’round. What we would consider supernatural is commonplace in Sunshine, to the extent of having an arm of the police/armed forces called “Special Other Forces”, to deal with vampires, demons and werecreatures–magic handlers are on both sides of the law. The book is set in (I think?) the Great Lakes region, but that could be only my reading of the geographical description akin to my guess as to Meredith’s gender in Dreamsnake; McKinley drops a few more hints than McIntyre, but there are a lot of places in North America which are both inland and have lots of lakes.

What’s the point of this entry, other than to mention Sunshine? Be careful when you recommend book A to someone who enjoys book B simply because both books share a common theme. I like books about time travel, because I like how some authors explain how the characters do move through time, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to like ALL books on time travel…and everyone has similar specific preferences.

1and indeed the readers might! but almost certainly for different reasons.
2then as now, there’s a range of homes by lakes, from rustic cottages to extravagant mansions
3at one point, McKinley refers to “Michigan, Chippewa, and Ontario” as three government regions in this world.

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One thought on “Robin McKinley’s Sunshine

  1. Pingback: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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