Sunshine by Robin McKinley
I finally finished Sunshine by Robin McKinley this afternoon. The quick and dirty version is that I absolutely loved it.
The review it deserves is a bit longer than that. I'd never read any of McKinley's work and actually don't recall ever hearing of her until Sunshine was recommended to me. Would I sound too much like a nerdy squeeing fangirl if I revealed that it was recommended to me personally by Nancy Pearl after she asked me what I'd been reading lately and I said Neil Gaiman and she said, "Oh, if you like Neil Gaiman, you'll love this book."? If so, don't look, because I'm about to show you the actual note she wrote so I would remember to look for the book:
Since this conversation took place in a library, I hunted up and checked out the book on my way out the door that night. It's taken me nearly a month to get through it, not due to the text itself, but because between NaNo and NaBlo and watching some TV on DVD, I only really dedicated lunch breaks at work to reading it. Right from the first page, I loved the tone, the voice of the narrator (Sunshine), the style, and the pacing. You can read the first few pages of the book here.
I loved the way McKinley wove details of the otherness of Sunshine's world in slowly. Rather than spending several pages on exposition and scene-setting, she opens with Sunshine describing somewhat commonplace things from her life, such as the coffeehouse where she works and the people she sees often. Then, on page 9, an innocuous comment: "Kenny wanted to get into Other law" with no further explanation forthcoming until the bottom of the next page: "When I was ten the Voodoo Wars started. They were of course nothing about voodoo, but they were about a lot of bad stuff, and some of the worst of them in our area happened around the lake." I remember at this point noticing how she was drawing me in with subtlety, but not minding even though I was aware of it. Then, a page later: "I never heard them coming. Of course you don't, when they're vampires."
She continued this slow weaving-in of details throughout the rest of the story, and it never felt drawn-out or gimmicky. It seemed instead to fit what a narrator would say if she was telling you a story from her everyday world, which seems very much like a somewhat-supernaturally-infused version of our own. The narrator, Sunshine, was believable and likeable. Many heroes / heroines of sci-fi stories have somewhat fantastic life stories. They're witches or wizards or noble or are exceptionally smart or insanely brave. In contrast, Sunshine is a pretty normal girl. She scraped through high school and is perfectly content in her job as a baker in a local coffeehouse. She has no big ideas, no grand plans, until she is caught up in a war between two vampires, and her life is changed forever. I don't want to reveal too much, but there is some elemental magic, some interesting interactions with one of the vampires in question, and a whole lot of enveloping world-making detail.
Reading Sunshine was a lot of fun. The book is somewhat creepy, somewhat funny, and really entertaining. I liked it so much that I put it on my Christmas list before I'd even finished it. While I was still reading, I was dying to get to the end, but once I did I wished that I was still embroiled in it. It did leave me with a few questions, though none are really nagging enough to be considered plot-holes or loose ends, and I don't want to give anything away by mentioning them, so I won't. Let me close by saying that I usually don't go for vampire stories, but I enjoyed this one immensely and would recommend it to anyone. It's got enough magic and undead for the sci-fi / fantasy fan and more than enough down-to-earth, believable characterization for those who tend to prefer non-fantasy fiction.