Robin McKinley,
(Berkley, 2003; Jove, 2004)

I am usually willing to read a book simply by virtue of the name "Robin McKinley" on its cover. Her writing, to say nothing of the sheer diversity of her work, has seldom failed to please.

But I'll be honest here and admit that it was the brief phrase "pretty much perfect" that appeared on the front cover, attributed to Neil Gaiman, that convinced me this book was mine. How can such a succinct, yet ringing endorsement from the likes of Gaiman be ignored?

Rae "Sunshine" Seddon is a small-town girl, a baker who has found her calling in the fiery heat of a diner's bakeshop ovens. She's a fairly normal young woman by most standards: she lives alone, has issues with her mother and enjoys a pleasant, low-pressure relationship with her heavily tattooed boyfriend. But gradually, it becomes apparent that the small-town world Sunshine inhabits isn't quite the one we know.

Vampires and demons are real. A dreadful war kept the forces of darkness at bay, but reduced modern society to a fraction of its former glory. And, while life goes on in America's cities and towns, people rely on a variety of wards and charms to protect themselves from harm, and there are places most mortal folk know to avoid.

Sunshine makes an error in judgment, however, and ends up a captive of a vampire gang. No one escapes from vampires, she knows -- but instead of a swift death, she finds herself chained up in a basement with a similarly shackled vampire -- she's the undead equivalent of the prisoner's last meal. But Constantine just doesn't seem hungry.

Of course they escape. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath -- Sunshine's growing awareness of magic, her brush with poison, an unsettling but unavoidable alliance with Con, the continuing threat of the vampire gang, the growing suspicions of the government spook hunters who just happen to enjoy an addiction to Sunshine's cinnamon rolls....

I find myself disagreeing with Gaiman to some extent; while I thoroughly enjoyed Sunshine, I didn't find it as near-flawless as he did. For one thing, there are a few too many similarities between Rae Seddon and Sookie Stackhouse, the heroine of Charlaine Harris's vampire novels -- even though the modern worlds they live in are vastly different. The pace of the book drags at times, and the whole book could have been shorter. And Sunshine's own development is somewhat questionable: in this vampire-slaying world, is she Buffy or Willow?

On the other hand, McKinley's writing stimulates the senses in ways the printed word often can't -- odors especially come alive, from the delicious aromas conjured in Sunshine's bakery to the rank stench of the undead. McKinley also touches lightly on an interesting angle: Constantine, while allied with Sunshine and certainly not as bad as the vampire gang, is still evil. She struggles with issues of helping him to survive, even if it's for a greater good. This concept clearly needs further exploration.

The novel ends with many threads unanswered, and I hope a sequel is in the works. I want to know more about the world Sunshine lives in, details of the past war and specifics about society as it continues to struggle on. Too, there is plenty of story yet to tell, particularly regarding Sunshine's future with Con and/or the spook squad.

If we're lucky, the next book will come packaged with a taste of Sunshine's cinnamon rolls.

by Tom Knapp
6 May 2006

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