McKinley's Sunshine

JOdel at JOdel at
Wed Feb 18 00:28:02 EST 2004

Oddly enough I have just been writng a review of Sunshine for the APA that I 
belong to. I figured that i might as well send it through here, considering as 
how we seem to suddenly be discussing it. I haven't worked my way all the way 
through the book yet, so things may take a sudden left turn between where i 
am and the ending.
I’ve been reading a bit more than I managed during the period that I was 
obsessing on the Monster Project. Right now I am working my way through Robin 
McKinley’s Sunshine. I’ll have to say that McKinley isn’t one of the first names 
that comes to mind when I think of who might suddenly decide to toss us a 
vampire story. As with Spindle’s End this isn’t the easiest book to get into, 
although it is easier than Spindle’s End was. 

For much the same reason. With Spindle’s End, there was such a wealth of 
minutiae   that had to be waded through before you could pick up the “flavor” of 
that particular world well enough to follow the characters’ motivations, that 
jumping into the story cold produced a considerable amount of resistance.

The world of Sunshine also has a wealth of subtext that has to be absorbed 
before you can properly follow the story and anticipate what makes the 
characters tick. In the case of Sunshine, however, we have a first-person narrative. 
And the impression one gets is that we have a narrator who tends to run off at 
the mouth. Actually, we have a narrator who has been through an overwhelmingly 
traumatic experience and is obsessing on details which manage to distract her 
attention or to defuse the memories of it.

Unlike just about everything that McKinley has written to this point (except 
for The Knot in the Grain, and perhaps some other short stories) the story 
takes place in America. But not our America. In fact, not our world at all.

There is potentially a very interesting study that could be made regarding 
McKinley’s progressive handling of magic in the creation of secondary worlds. 
She has produced quite a series of variations on this particular theme.

At the beginning of her career she didn’t put a lot of thought into the 
problem at all. Magic just worked. But, of course, no one believed in it. Or, at 
least that was the underlying view of the subject in Beauty. Magic, was 
something that only ignorant country people believed in, and even once the family 
moved out to the country it took a while for magic to catch up with them, and most 
of their neighbors didn’t know anything about it. This was typical enough in 
retold fairy tales and no one thought much of it. Well, apparently, since that 
time, McKinley has been giving the matter a lot of thought.

In her Damar stories, and in Deerskin, which takes place in the same 
universe, magic is rare, but it is acknowledged to exist, even though few people 
encounter it. And human magic is not the same thing as the magic of other races. 
This world was also an early creation. And the treatments here, while 
comprehensive and internally consistent are far from remarkable. Quite a few other 
authors seem to have adopted a similar template.

But with Rose Daughter we see an abrupt shift. If magic works in a world,   
people will foster it. Far from being a thing only regarded by country 
peasants, it will be a formal study and any magic handler with ambitions will head for 
the largest town available in an attempt to make his fortune. Magic in Rose 
Daughter was pervasive and not always well meaning. And the magic of the Beast’
s castle was both twisted and oppressive. And distinctly hostile.

This theme was explored more deeply in Spindle’s End, where the magic of the 
story’s country is so pervasive as to be a positive nuisance, chaotic and 
arbitrary, it is only barely possible to keep it under control.

In Sunshine, magic is both pervasive and malicious. It is a strain on human 
resources just to attempt to provide a normal life for most humans, and, at 
that, there is an additional overlay of bureaucracy and effort which attempts to 
contain the ever-present problem of the Others. People who are not human, or 
those whose mostly human bloodlines are impure, and presumably dangerous. And 
even the protective wards and charms with which everyone is more or less forced 
to surround themselves are an ever-present distraction and irritant which can 
go rogue at any time.

And the Darkest Others are the vampires. Most writers’ interpretations of 
vampires are pretty attractive. One rather likes the notion of P.N. Elrod’s or 
Frank Saberhagen’s vampires. 

These aren’t. These vampires are nasty. They do not sound, move or smell 
human, and everything about them sets off an instinctive panic reaction in humans. 
If you see them in decent light during the night time they look dead. And 
they do not attempt to remember their former humanity.
Like Rice’s vampires, they do not “sip” and run, they attack to kill, and 
they torment their prey in order to maximize the terror which gives their food 
its “savor”. No human has ever survived a vampire attack. And since the Voodoo 
Wars some ten years before the story opens, vampires have tended   to hunt in 
packs, for protection. 

The vulnerability of a McKinley vampire is that as they grow older in this 
undead state, they are less able to stand even reflected sunlight. Only a 
comparatively “young” vampire can go about in the light of a full moon. As vampires 
become older they start to run gangs who will do their bidding and bring them 
what they need. Consequently there are “turf wars” between master vampires 
for territory. All in all it is an ugly situation. And likely to grow uglier 
with time. Because, in the opinion of a number of law enforcement people who 
actually see the evidence mounting up, it looks like the vampires, who are 
rumored to control one fifth of the world’s resources, are winning.

Not that anyone actually realizes this, mind you.

And in the middle of this, one Rae Seddon, a 20-something baker for a 
family-run coffeehouse drives out to a cabin by the lake one night for a bit of 
well-earned solitude and ends up in the middle of a vampire turf war.

And lives to tell the tale. 

Except that she isn’t telling anybody anything.

I have only gotten half-way through the book so far, but my impression is 
that in a number of ways, such as the handling of themes and motifs and what all, 
the book feels rather like the weirdest amalgam of elements from The Hero and 
the Crown, Rose Daughter, and… Buffy the Vampire Slayer?! 

I’m less than sure on this last one. I saw the original movie, but the series 
had a much bigger continuing cast and I never saw any of that. But the 
comments from fans about it chime with the feeling I am getting from Sunshine.

And I’ve noticed before that McKinley is very much aware of popular culture. 

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