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Retrospective: Sunshine by Robin McKinley, it’s totally thor!

4 min read
A candelabra chandelier lighting the ceiling in a red glow. It is of the ballroom in the novel.

There are some perfect books to my mind.  Gaudy Night, Precious Bane, Changer and Changer’s Daughter, Keeping Watch.  They claim dominance on my re-read shelf, along with Jane Austen, and Varley’s Gaia Trilogy, even if I don’t reach for them the same way as I do Austen or Patricia Wrede.  Keeping Watch by Laurie R. King made me feel as if there was no need to write ever again (of course, this did not happen. It would be like asking me to stop breathing.  I’d hold my breath, turn blue, pass out, and my body would breathe again).  Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is one of those perfect books.

It’s actually hard to discuss this book, because McKinley has created this world so much like our own, and that she makes so familiar it’s surprising we can’t go find Charlie’s Coffee House to go eat one of Sunshine’s cinnamon rolls.  No matter how allergic I am to wheat, I’d hope there was some working ward against it, and I’d get it tattooed on my skin.  I want to eat Sunshine’s baked goods. 

Sunshine is the main character, and her daily life is baking for the coffee house where she grew up after her mother’s divorce.  And within the coffee house life, there is a great deal she can tell us about the city, New Arcadia that survived the Voodoo Wars of the Dark Others against humans.  She can tell us a lot about those Others, and about the daily magic that seems as natural as buying incense. More: she loves her mostly normal life, and has largely forgotten her father’s family history or talents, for this supremely normal life. 

Till she’s caught by vampires and…

A black coffee cup spilling what looks to be red.

I would LOVE to tell you more, but that would give away the plot. Let’s just say that it does involve vampires, and a vampire battle, and Sunshine is right in the middle of things, and trying hard to stay off the radar of the Special Other Force, because she’s an unlicensed magic handler—and doing far more than small changer stuff.  For a young woman who doesn’t believe herself to be very brave, and her highest wish was to be the best baker in the area, she is quite brave. Sunshine does have a very small band of allies of partblood demons passing as humans, a wardskeeper, and friends, trusting her, backing her up however little they can without knowing what she’s up against.  Their care is a support with the one she’s bound to help fight with against their common foe, the master vampire of ancient evil.

McKinely’s writing is part of the charm.  And so believable as to bring you into the world as Sunshine narrates the events, and guides you through the streets of New Arcadia, mostly grotty Old Town where she lives.  You want to know, but not know, what kind of were Mrs. Bialosky might be.  A were-what?  And there are all sorts of weres in that world.  Were-rats, to were-chickens, though werewolves are rare.  The drugs to stop the change at the full moon are illegal, but are found on the black market, and were-chickens probably pay for them, no matter how expensive. 

The slang in this book is totally thor, and every time I try to use it in our world, people go, “Huh?” Which is carthaginian pig swill to my mind.  As descriptors of how things are going, or how Sunshine sees things, and speaks in a language that’s seamlessly part of that world, it’s brilliant.  It is one of the marks of how great this book is, how well done the world building.  It’s absolutely natural to that world, yet harder to bring into this world.  Few writers do this that I’ve read.  They usually just drop our slang into the world they’ve created. 

A sparkly gold cover with an eye being shown from between falling hair.

McKinley gives us enough familiarity that she gets to play with language like this and let’s us sink into it without too much “pressure on the understood boundaries of yourself.” (p. 341 of the gold cover) She gives us an idea about vampires that echo the of Stoker’s introduction to the species.  As much as I liked Anne Rice’s books, I’ll admit that after re-reading Stoker’s Dracula as an adult I understood the difference in denseness of the inner world commentary. One feels more like entertainment, the other includes commentary on the time period he was writing in. Both Stoker and McKinley’s vampire inhabited worlds feel, upon reflection, as they have done more work in the writing, and yet without feeling heavy.  Well, Stoker’s Dracula is pretty heavy in ways that Sunshine is not.  

Sunshine is the bright light, so to speak, of vampire books, and I’ll admit I know only one other person who has read it.  So please read it, join the crowd, so we can yearn for Sunshine’s Eschatology, and wish we could eat it, and comment on how totally thor it is.

Other books I loved by Robin McKinley is Beauty, The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, among others.  Those are just among the ones I enjoyed more than others, though others were fun. 

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