Friday, February 22, 2008

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Okay, so there will be discussion of the Project Runway final collections, but for now we're going to take a break and review a book!

As I mentioned in January, I'm doing the Mythopoeic Award Challenge over at Foxy Writer.

The first book I decided to read was 2004's Adult Fantasy Winner, Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I actually had picked this book up a few times, trying to read it probably three times. I got it from PaperBackSwap on the basis of a friend's recommendation. I picked it up again after another friend mentioned how much she loved McKinley's other book, Beauty.

But I just couldn't seem to crack that first chapter. Reading the book for the challenge, I made myself get through it and I'm not sure if I feel this is an accomplishment, or a foolish endeavor.

McKinley has created a fascinating world, where the Voodoo Wars have changed the face of the city where our protagonist is a baker. Vampires, ghouls, weres, and other paranormal creatures are a fact of life there. Magic handlers are famous, and there's a branch of government called the Special Other Forces.

The author created an interesting situation: the main character, Rae (who is called Sunshine) is the heir of a very important magic handling legacy. She's ignored these talents for years, but has some skills at transmuting. Her "element" is sunshine, which is rare, but gives her interesting skills. Through a few quirks of fate, she ends up imprisoned with a vampire named Constantine, and befriends him. She then ends up joining him in an effort to kill the vampire whose gang captured her.

Okay, with that description, it still sounds like a pretty great book, at least a very interesting one. However, the book doesn't try to actually be about this fascinating world. It doesn't really explore the strange connection between Sunshine and Constantine (though it pretends to, it never gets anywhere). It certainly doesn't really explore why Constantine, of all the vampires in the world, is a good guy. We're told that there are different ways of being a vampire. But then we're told over and over that vampires are evil, terrible, etc.

WHY is Constantine special? HOW is he substantially different from the others? Well, that certainly wouldn't matter, would it?

Except it does. Everything that the reader might desperately want to explore is thrown by the wayside. Why?

I fully blame the fact that the book is written in first person. Rae has only a few settings in her brain, and we're treated to them ad nasueum:

1. She makes cinnamon rolls. Amazing, astonishing, large, popular cinnamon rolls. Lest you forget, we are reminded of these cinnamon rolls every chapter, at least once. If not more times.

2. Rae doesn't trust the SOF, or authority in general. Or really, anybody. So she's constantly talking about all these fabulous people in her life, and then telling us why she doesn't trust them and can't rely on them. Only, her reasons aren't all that sound. Her boyfriend has tattoos. Apparently this means something, though we never get to find out what, and it keeps her from telling him anything. Because he has tattoos. Huh?

3. Rae is a complete vampire fangirl, but don't mistake that to mean she thinks vampires are cool! They're evil, she shouldn't be friends with one! She should stake him on sight! She totally reads anything ever written about vampires but she knows better, she knows they're bad, she just likes to read stories where they're not bad! Or something.

The entire book is Rae complaining that she wants her life to be normal again, while never acting like that's what she actually wants. She pretty much walks around using her powers at every available opportunity, while complaining that she has them and wishing they'd go away. This isn't just a case of the reluctant hero, who eventually accepts that they are the only person who can complete the task. This is just a bad character.

If the story was about Rae, but we weren't treated to her inner thoughts, I think it could have survived. But instead, she thinks the same things chapter after chapter. She doesn't really grow or change. Being treated to her inner workings doesn't give us some insight to her development as a person. She just keeps complaining about how she wants to make cinnamon rolls.

I desperately wanted anybody else's insights. I eagerly read any scene involving her landlady, because Yvonne actually had something to say, and revealed interesting things. But even scenes with Constantine were bogged down with Rae's inner ramblings about vampire physiology. Which would be interesting, if she ever got anywhere with it, but she has no answers or really astute observations.

Sunshine is not a bad book. I've read bad books, this isn't one of them. But I think it desperately needed to be switched to third person, or to go through one more draft to make Rae a fleshed out and interesting heroine. As it is, it reads like a book designed solely to set up a series, but as far as I can tell Mckinley hasn't written any other books in this world.

I encourage people to pick this book up and try it themselves if they think the plot or characters sound interesting, or if they like McKinley. But I also suggest that if you don't make it through the first chapter, don't keep trying. It doesn't get any better.


Polgarra said...

I actually wandered over for Project Runway news but I am also a huge sci fi/Fantasy Fan. I was intrigued by your review and I will by again soon. If you ever need suggestions I have alot I have read that are trully awesome and awful. (what is the deal with Laurell K Hamiltons books becoming hard core Porn these days?)

Meiran said...

Polgarra, feel free to suggest anything! I'm always looking for new books to read, I haven't picked up Laurel K Hamilton before, though I've meant to at least read the first few books for ages.

I'm glad you stopped by, even if it wasn't what you expected! I'll be reviewing the final collections in the next two weeks, but I wanted to take a week off the fashion with the reunion : )

Kim L said...

You put my frustrations with the book just perfectly. I was so frustrated by the fact the book never went anywhere. And I wanted to know why exactly Con was a good guy. And I got bored silly with being stuck inside Sunshine's head. I think the author set up an interesting premise that she just wasn't able to deliver in. Beats me as to why it won the award. She's written a few really good books and other ones like this that could have been better in less clumsy hands.

lollipop4598 said...

I read Sunshine, and I loved it. There is a reason the book has won like ten awards. So its not just my opinion. I understand your frustration with the book given what modern literature is, but the whole point is that much of the best literature is dependent on an imperfect narrator. Think of "Count Dracula". We never find out what his first name is much less any specifics of his metaphysical reality. The best thing an author can do is to get you to use your own imagination to fill in the gaps. Thats why this book works.

lollipop4598 said...

Besides its not a mystery of why Constantine is "different". He likely does not dine on us people. That might be why the gang in the beginning tries to get him to eat Sunshine.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to go back and reread this. It's not for everyone, but some of those things are not true. Sunshine does grow. She doesn't want to change her life, but she's willing to look at the bigger picture and, eventually, the greater good. She doesn't go out looking for magic, just realizes that it's a part of her that she can't just ignore.

Although it IS irritating how we never find out about Constantine and Sunshine weird bond. How can she protect him form sunlight without even touching him?

Anonymous said...

After finishing this book, I feel exactly the same way. I absolutely loved the premise but was bored to tears with Rae. I got tired of the bakery scenes, and her whining actually became frustrating. I wanted to know more about Constantine as I thought he was a strong character. I wanted to know more about Rae's father, and the Blaise family in general. And the sexual tension between Sunshine & Constantine? It didn't develop, much like their friendship. There was very little holding it together.

I didn't hate this book. I loved the idea of it. But it left me frustrated more than anything, as I would read scenes and think they were pointless. I took them in thinking they would serve a purpose later in the story only to be disappointed.