Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: "Sunshine" by Robin McKinley

Rae "Sunshine" Seddon only went to the lake for some time to reflect. Her need to escape becomes far more literal and urgent when she is kidnapped by a vampire gang and locked in abandoned house, meant to be prey to another of their kind. But within three days, both Sunshine and her fellow prisoner are free in broad daylight, confounding their captors.

Sunshine's attempt to resume her ordinary life as a baker is doomed to fail. Now she has supernatural detectives questioning her survival, a wound that won't heal, and a vampire with a life debt hanging around her house. Not to mention the very old, very angry bloodsucker whose vengeance she unknowingly thwarted.

1.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Robin McKinley's Sunshine used to be my best friend's "comfort read," and I used to tease her about it, because it was just such a terrible book. I regret this now. It's not cool to tease someone about what gives them pleasure. Dear readers, you are welcome to enjoy whatever book you wish, regardless of what "score" I or any other reviewer give it (For that matter, I cherish every one of your recommendations, even when I absolutely pan the book in question.)

So I mean no judgment upon its fans when I reiterate that Sunshine is still a terrible book.

The great pity is that the first quarter of it could be an engaging, if somewhat narratively sloppy, short story. The tension between the two prisoners, both trying to outlast the vampire's inevitable hunger, tormented in turns by scalding daylight or nightmarish darkness, could have stood upon its own. All the book's best moments and lines occur in that first prolonged scene.
He was thin, thin to emaciated, the cheekbones and ribs looking like they were about to split the old-mushroom skin. It didn't matter. The still-burning vitality in that body was visible even to my eyes. He would be fine again once he'd had dinner. 
My teeth chattered. I pulled my knees up under my chin and wrapped my arms around them. We sat like this for several minutes, the vampire motionless, while I chattered and trembled and tried not to moan. Tried not to beg uselessly for my life. Watched him watching me. 
"Speak," he said at last. "Remind me that you are a rational creature." 
The words had long pauses between them, as if he found it difficult to speak, or as if he had to recall the words one at a time. Perhaps he found it awkward to speak to his dinner. If he wasn't careful he'd go off me, like Alice after she'd been introduced to the pudding. I should be so lucky.
Sadly, after this scene ends, it's all downhill into the junkyard.

The titular protagonist is a failure. For all of her tedious rambling, she's a bit emotionally disconnected--not in the perfectly valid "living through trauma" sort of way, but in the "inconsistently characterized for the sake of cheap narrative drama" sort of way. The reader never identifies with Sunshine because she never identifies herself clearly enough to make an impression.

Rather than serving as an engaging gateway to this particular urban fantasy, her narration is a stumbling block. Her asides are irritating rather than wry. Massive informational dumps interrupt scenes, important characters appear late and without explanation, and Sunshine randomly announces new and game-changing information at the eleventh hour. It's hard to ever get a sense of what this brave new world is like, much less what sort of people populate it.

Yet for all of its busyness, the story is rather... boring. An integrated human and magical society is blurry and haphazard instead of curious and mesmerizing. A complex history is never explained. And the tension of the first scene of imprisonment fails to be recreated by the rest of the story that follows. Is Sunshine in danger? Who knows! What are the villains doing? Who knows that either! Have you been lied to your entire life? Ehh, probably, but why worry about it!

It's as if the story was written on the strength of a really fascinating but incomplete idea for a world--and then never edited. It reads like a first draft. One with a very elegant cover.

The climax is the worst offender in a long, long list of books by McKinley that end with the protagonist walking slowly through inexplicable magic resistance while the villain monologues pettily, only to have the villain (and the world?) EXPLODE when confronted by the protagonist's goodness. Or something. Followed by a few paragraphs of everyone, including the reader, being very confused and startled while glitter and exploded!evil shrapnel fall everywhere.

Yes, really.

Then, to set it apart, Sunshine ends on an even more confusing and unsatisfying note, wherein none of the book's questions about Sunshine's innate magical talents, the secret influx of partblooded humans in society, her status with the SOF, and Con's continued future existence are answered. But at least she now seems to have two boyfriends(?) and no plans to discuss or resolve this state of affairs with either one. That's an especially classy finishing touch for a book without any hint of a sequel.

Sunshine is not offensive, at least. It is only tedious, confusing, and poorly written. It stands as a reminder to me not to pick up McKinley books published after 2000.

But if it's your comfort read, hey, go right ahead.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 1/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 1/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail?
Content Warning: gory imagery, violence, one really gross and inexplicable sex scene

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