Sunshine by Robin McKinley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Though monsters haunt the darkness of her world, Sunshine is still unprepared to be taken prisoner one night by a group of vampires - or to make herself an ally of the otherworldly Constantine.
Sunshine is an ordinary woman, a baker at her family-run coffeehouse in New Arcadia. Humans are a species in constant danger of being overrun by the many kinds of monsters and magic in the world, though the end of the Voodoo Wars bought some breathing room. But the scariest monsters are the vampires: Vampires have an edge over humans because of their agelessness and their brutality. (It's an open secret that they control much of the world's wealth.) Sunshine fully expects to die horribly. Instead she makes an ally out of one of the deadly predators and discovers untapped abilities in herself that lead her to some disturbing truths about her family. And some serious soul-searching.
I mean, a lot of soul-searching. There's more soul-searching than plot, to be honest. I found myself getting impatient at McKinley's habit of overexplaining stuff I don't care about (like Sunshine's daily work routine, which sounds brutal) and then leaving someone called a "goddess of pain" up in the air. McKinley could have used a more thorough editor: sometimes the action of the magic and the flow of Sunshine's thoughts were difficult to untangle. I found myself rereading passages asking "What just happened?" and still not quite understanding.
To her credit, McKinley is creating an incredibly complex urban fantasy world with her own take on mythical monsters, alternate history, and system of magic. She also creates an intriguing mix of characters, many of whom would be interesting to see developed more. (Sadly, Sunshine delivers us most of the information about this world in large chunks of exposition/supposition in between baking and having repetitive conversations with friends.)
Sunshine feels like the first of a series, with a potential new villain set up and plenty of unanswered questions at the end. It's being held out as a must-read for Buffy fans, which I'm not sure I agree with. (Vampires may be Buffy's thing, but there's a lot more to the show's appeal than that.) Sunshine does lean toward the classic vampire myths, so I'd say fans of Anne Rice or Bram Stoker will be pleased. It's not a good a match for Twilight fans, though.
Since setting is key in Sunshine, my two next read suggestions are based on big world-building ideas. For urban fantasy, Kraken by China Mieville has a fascinating system of magic, all in orbit around a missing giant squid. The ultimate eerie gothic trilogy is Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (mentioned in passing by Sunshine), which takes place in a vast castle with very strange inhabitants.
A sexually explicit scene took me aback at one point - I was not expecting the c-word to pop up in this novel. (But then there it was!) And there is a lot of gore - but this is clearly intended to be a horror novel, so caveat emptor.
P.P.S: So apparently there's no sequel planned, which makes the failings of this book that much worse. Annoying. (And I got my facts straight from the horse's mouth.)