Books Reviews

A few quiet strides into the shadows behind the snappy pop culture of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the joyous literacy of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Robin McKinley’s absorbing urban fantasy Sunshine illuminates a war-wounded modern landscape washed in humanity’s darkest mythic fears.

The protagonist, nicknamed Sunshine, drives a car equipped with spells as well as seatbelts, and the cops who frequent her coffeehouse specialize in crimes committed by creatures of the night. When vampires attack her, society finds this assault less remarkable than any other mugging—except that Sunshine escapes, as no one ever has.

Catalyzed by her vampiric encounter, the plot punches through what the heroine thought were the solid walls of her workaday world. Unlocking doors on closeted truths, Sunshine’s personal peril embodies a slowly revealed threat to all humanity and draws her into a struggle she never imagined. While I do not delight in conspiracy stories, I admire the art with which McKinley constructs her complex societal web, locating friends and foes on both sides of the law in the best X-Files fashion.

Brisk first-person narration immediately engulfs the reader in Sunshine’s life but edges into the eerie with the realization that none of the characters share this articulate intimacy. Though she loves her family and friends, Sunshine is a woman of silence and forgetting, an adult child of divorce and war. This dessert-baking, daylight-craving, vegetarian bookworm is the opposite of all things vampiric. But not all opposites are solely antithetical; some, like female and male, are also complementary, and that mystery empowers Sunshine even as it threatens her sanity.

Fantasy often stingily reserves its tropes of self-discovery to adolescents, as if surviving teenhood should somehow free us forever from questioning our identity and purpose.

This convention can alienate adult readers denied the “happily ever after” granted every juvenile hero. Sunshine rehabilitates the sudden revelation of magic powers, mysterious lineage and world-saving vocations for those with steady jobs, committed lovers and a diploma on the shelf. In her most original novel since her unforgettable Newbery Honor book, The Blue Sword, McKinley brings a familiar nightmare to an adult awakening, where no end is “ever after,” and “happily” is pursued again each day.

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