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Retro Friday Review, Halloween Edition: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
I look forward to this season every year because it means I get to reread Sunshine. This is one of my few solid seasonal reads. I revisit it every year for so many reasons. Because it originally came out in October. Because it absolutely encapsulates autumn for me. And Halloween, of course, what with all the vampires and the midnight outings and the smell of fallen leaves and cinnamon rolls in the air. And because it's just one of the biggest Angie books there is. I remember being almost apoplectic with excitement when I heard Robin McKinley was writing a vampire novel. The whole notion filled me with tingles. And imagine how happy I was when it turned out to be better than I could ever have imagined. I know people have strong feelings on this book, one way or the other, and it's certainly not your run-of-the-mill urban fantasy (thank heavens for that). But for those who love feisty girls with thoughts of their own, ugly vampires with developing senses of humor, and wonderfully rich, dense, smart writing, this book may very well have your name on it. As for me, I bought it the day it came out (almost exactly eight years ago). I took it home and read it aloud with DH. And to this day favorite passages and scenes come up in our daily conversation. So as Halloween approaches, a Retro Friday review of my very favorite spooky read. 

A side note: I'm not even slightly embarrassed to admit I own all three editions pictured above. If a new edition of Sunshine comes out, I buy it. End of story. It helps that they're all so very pretty. If pressed, I will admit that the original U.S. hardcover with the chandelier is my favorite. But I adore all three. And the important thing is that they're there. On my shelves. So that when the urge arises, I can take them out and stroke them and know that they're there and that they're loved. I know. But like I said--not even a little embarrassed.
It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn't that dumb. There hadn't been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.
These opening lines set the scene. Sunshine just wanted some solitude. Just a little time away from the strange and chaotic life she leads as the head baker at Charlie's and as her mother's daughter. She gets up every morning at the butt crack of dawn to get the dough going for her famous Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head. And for Sunshine's Killer Zebras. And for Bitter Chocolate Death. And any number of awesome, original desserts and pastries she whips up on a daily basis at Charlie's--her stepfather's diner. She gets up and fights another round with her overprotective, obsessive mother. She gets up and goes out with her former soldier/reformed biker/cook boyfriend Mel. She gets up and gets through another day in New Arcadia--one of the few remaining spots that wasn't utterly demolished by the Voodoo Wars. And all she wanted was a moment alone in a peaceful place. So she drove out to the lake to sit. And that's when they came. And that's where they got her. As everybody knows, you don't hear them coming. Not when they're vampires. And you don't come back either. But Sunshine does come back after her extended and terrifying encounter with one vampire Constantine. She comes back and comes home. But. Even though she's home once more, nothing is the same. For all her surviving the encounter, she may not survive living with herself after.

Sunshine is one of those sarcastic, supremely set-in-her-ways tough girls that I seem to live for. The girl holds my heart in her flour-dusted hands. And because she is rendered in Robin McKinley's trademark prose, she's even more quirky and meandering and tangentially-inclined than those girls usually are. The tangents and meanderings bother some readers, I understand. If long internal monologues aren't your cup of tea, then they're not your cup of tea. But nobody can say that Ms. McKinley didn't go all-out hardcore when she sat down to write an urban fantasy. Because she did. And I love Sunshine with the fierce kind of love I reserve for those characters and stories that take no prisoners and make no apologies. I knew I would love Sunshine herself on page two when she set out to describe her stepfather.
Charlie is one of the big good guys in my universe.
There's so much fight and heart in that simple statement. Her relationship with Charlie is a highlight of the book, as he took her in as his own, gave her a job and a way out, and understood her when her mother could only scream. The way she introduced him made me love her. Many of Rae's rambling monologues include wry, self-effacing asides that always make me grin. For example:
I didn't want to know that the monster that lived under your bed when you were a kid not only really is there but used to have a few beers with your dad.
Set against the backdrop of almost certain doom, these barbs of humor secured my affection the way nothing else could have. I laugh a lot when I read Sunshine. I also shiver deliciously with fear. Which brings us to Con. As if Sunshine wasn't enough, Robin McKinley had to go and write Con--a vampire as far removed from the sexy-sparkly variety as is inhumanly possible. I really don't know of any other author who could make me fall in love with a vampire with skin the color of old mushrooms and a voice that unhinges your spine. But fall in love with Con I did. Or, more precisely, fall in love with the unlikely alliance of Sunshine-and-Con I did. It is this unprecedented friendship between human and vampire that is the real heart of the book. And it is made more believable (and much more valuable) by the lengths to which the author goes to to display how antithetical, how other, they are from one another. These two are not drawn together by attraction or random circumstance. They are bound together by the will to survive, by the refusal to live at the expense of another life, and by a slow-simmering, if uncomfortable, mutual admiration. The combination of Sunshine's jittery rambles and Con's remote and ominous silences gets me every time. As does the smart, knotty writing, Sunshine's passion for what she does, and the wonderful, wonderful restraint exercised to let the story unfold in its own way. Every time I read it, I find extra nuance and sympathy. And a perfect ending. As only she knows how to write them. This book, you guys. This best of all combinations of fairy tale, urban fantasy, and horror story. Neil Gaiman notably described it as "pretty much perfect," and I have to concur. I never tire of it. It's October once more, and I'm feeling that familiar Sunshine pull. Which copy shall I read this time?

Retro Friday Roundup


  1. One of my fav books of all time. The last scene between Con and Sunshine just felt so real too. I also loved Sunshine's landlady! Like you, but with less actual writing ability, I could wax poetic about Sunshine for ages. (PS. Believe it or not, this is my Christmas Eve read since the first time I read it was on Christmas Eve prior to having a child. Maybe I believe in the Victorian English way of reading/telling a ghost story around Christmas.)

  2. I have this in my pile - I think based on one of your previous recs of it. However right now I'm reading A Separate Peace because of a previous Retro Friday post. It is... extraordinary. I can't believe I'd never heard of it before. Maybe I'll read Sunshine next.

  3. Don't be embarrassed about owning the three editions. I have the first two on the left and want the one on the right. ;) One of my favorite McKinley's.

  4. I've never read this one, though I'm a professed McKinley fan. I really should remedy this (especially since your glowing review makes it sound so enticing).

  5. I loved this one too, but I always wanted a sequel. Not because things didn't wrap up nicely but because I wanted more! You make me want to read it again.

  6. I absolutely *love* all 3 covers, and this from someone who's normally picky about that kind of thing.

    Between that and the fact that I read Robin McKinley obsessively as a young teen, I'm surprised I haven't read this one yet. Would you recommend it to folks like me, who never made it onto the Twilight bandwagon? I'm really quite curious.

    Also, ditto the thing about reading certain books at certain times of the year. I always want to read HP during the months of Oct-Nov, since that is when I read the whole series through for the first time.

    - W.L. :)

  7. Anonymous6:04 AM


    *buys it*

    At this point, I have entirely given in to the fact that Angie-purchases are inevitable. - Elle

  8. Love this book. Love it. I was shocked the first time I ran into a McKinley fan who hated it -- but you're right, it seems to inspire either love or hate, and not much in between. Rae remains one of my favourite characters of all time, and as a narrator she's one of the few who actually gets stuck in my head.

    Also: I don't have more than one edition, but I do have two of the exact same paperback (with the chandelier) just in case I wear through one. And I might buy an e-copy. Which leads me to the fact that thanks to your review, and quoting that first line, I will now be dropping what I'm reading and only sort of enjoying to go back and read this again, immediately.

  9. I read and owned a copy of Sunshine with the left most cover. I happen to love all three of these covers. ... my only regret is that I gave my copy away to someone and don't have it anymore. Mailed it all the way to New Zealand, too! I suppose I could always buy another copy. ... and try to choose from one of these covers. Hmm..

  10. This review took my breath away, Angie! Believe me, this is not a bad thing, but I kind of feel like putting my head in a hole and never writing another review again.

    I really am going to read this book some day. When the time is right. And, if I had my choice, it would be the sparkly edition of course and I would stroke it just because it's so pretty, but hopefully because I liked the inside as well.

    I admire the sure, unapologetic passion for the books you love and how it always comes across through your words.

    Keep up the amazing work!

  11. Kitten, what a wonderful tradition! I love it. And that last scene really is perfect.

    Simone, you're reading A SEPARATE PEACE?! I'm so thrilled. And you're loving it, too. This makes my day.

    Janice, thank you. ;)

    Melissa, someday when you're feeling like some McKinley goodness.

    Jenny, yeah. I would happily read a sequel if she ever wrote one. The longing . . .

    WL, see? They're just amazingly good. I don't know of any other book that's been that coverlucky that many times. And to answer your question, yes! I absolutely recommend this one for people who didn't get into TWILIGHT. It is, quite simply, nothing like it. At all.

    Elle, LOL. So excited to hear your thoughts.

    kiirstin, I know. I was shocked as well. And there are a lot of them who hate it. I just . . . don't . . . I can't fathom it. Like you, Rae gets stuck in my head in such a good way. I love her. And I love the world. And every single side character. Forever. Happy re-reading!

    Christine, how generous of you. :) Hope you regain a copy soon. I love all these editions.

    Holly, awww. You're too kind. And I do NOT want you to stop writing reviews. You have wonderful comments and thoughts I always look forward to.

  12. Oh wow, what a review! Good thing I already have a copy because otherwise, your review would have convinced me to get this book ASAP. I read this before I started the blog and I remember having lukewarm reaction to it mostly because I was used to McKinley's epic fantasy and I think that's what I expected. I should do a reread and see if my feelings have changed.

  13. Chachic, thanks! And it would be interesting to hear what you thought upon re-reading. I've been pondering how much my mood affects the overall experience of reading a book lately. I fear it can have far too large an effect sometimes . . .

  14. I'm listening to this again. LOVE this book. It is by far my favorite vampire book.

    1. Mine as well, Donna. By FAR. :)


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