Pro tip on reading Sunshine: bake a huge tray of cinnamon rolls before you start. You are going to need them or you will be making emergency trips to your local cinnamon roll shop mid-novel. The eponymous narrator is a professional baker and can’t go three pages without mentioning her amazing cinnamon rolls. Big, fluffy, cinnamon rolls made from yeasted dough and topped with thick frosting. Get it? Do you have your cinnamon rolls yet? Then you may proceed.
The cinnamon rolls are a major character in Sunshine, which is a post-apocalyptic alt-verse urban fantasy vampire novel. Are you confused yet? This is typical Robin McKinley, but I had never read Robin McKinley like this before. I had forgotten about her, even though she was one of my favorite authors before I got over my teen dragon YA fantasy phase way back in 1992. It turns out I should have been keeping tabs on this fantastic writer because she has branched out into adult fiction and with a vengeance. This novel is definitely adult: “engorged labia” make an all-too-brief appearance, which I would have loved to have seen in McKinley’s YA stuff back in 1992, but YA books are too prudish for that. Not Sunshine! Nothing prudish here. It’s also not much like you’d expect from a vampire novel, in a very McKinley-esque way.
Robin McKinley has a knack for putting you in a world that feels real, even when it’s clearly ridiculous. The opening sequence of Sunshine is a masterful piece of storytelling that brings the protagonist “from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world” in an astonishing way when this humble baker of cinnamon rolls is kidnapped by vampires. The world-building starts at that point and relentlessly marches on for the rest of the book. The plotting and pacing are pretty steady, although this is necessarily the type of story that has excessive amounts of explanations of things both essential and trivial in order for the reader to understand this world where vampires roam free. If you are not game for learning all the ins and outs of an alternate universe, this is not the novel for you. However, the story is riveting, the characters are compelling, and the world is ruthlessly built layer upon layer.
Then, sadly, the novel comes to an end. I found this book via a list of best sci-fi and fantasy books on NPR and I read the intro on the author’s web page then felt compelled to find it at the library immediately. I binge-read this book in a few days. The ending was a relief and a satisfaction – a relief from this brutal page-turner, but a satisfying resolution to events. There were some intriguing unanswered questions, sure. It was a little frustrating to spend 400 pages reading new levels of minutia about how magic works only to have some major questions go un-answered, but I consider this to be the price of entry for this kind of ride. And Robin McKinley, master story-teller, makes some of the best kinds of rides. If you crave some well-crafted fantasy, but you wouldn’t touch Twilight with a 10-foot pole, Sunshine is the novel for you.