I like things neat and tidy. Tightly tucked beds, freshly shined shoes and an iTunes collection without a single missing piece of album artwork are some of my favorite things. This penchant for neatness carries over to my reading material, too, and favorite novels tend toward brevity, economy of language and strong structures. Such unquestioned preferences may be part of the reason why I'm having a tough time handing down a verdict on Robin McKinley's Sunshine.
Rae Sheddon literally loves light. She so adores basking in the heat of day that her family and friends call her Sunshine, and that love is matched only by her desire to bake. Sunshine works in her stepfather's coffeehouse, rising before dawn to make muffins and brownies and cinnamon rolls as big as your head. Things may not be perfect (and few who survived the Voodoo Wars would claim otherwise), but Sunshine has eked out a pleasant-enough life for herself. Pleasant, that is, until she drives out to the lake one day for a little alone time. That's where the Others find her. Not demons or zombies or weres. If it had been any of those, she might have stood a chance of escape. No, Sunshine gets found by vampires and, before she knows it, ends up chained to a wall in an abandoned manor house -- chained next to another vampire. Only this vampire says he doesn't want to hurt her. Sunshine doesn't trust him. Everyone knows the only good sucker is a dead one, right? Yet as night rolls into day and back into night, Sunshine will have to reevaluate not only her views on the deadliest undead, but also those of the people she loves the most and even of the very blood that flows through her veins.
At the risk of being blunt, let me say straight out just what in the novel put me off: It's McKinley's style. Calling it "colloquial" doesn't begin to cut it; "chatty" comes closer. One starts to wonder after the first hundred pages whether or not it was written in steam of consciousness. Not the literary technique preferred by Naguid Mahfouz or Adrian McKinty, but a whatever-crosses-the-brain-ends-up-on-the-page kind of composition. Truckloads of detail almost bury important character revelations, and the plot likes to plow into multi-page expository lumps that bring the proceedings to a shuddering stop. (One particularly painful section involves Sunshine accidentally arriving sans clothing after an impromptu magical transportation and details at length the ensuing anatomical aftereffects.)
And yet this comes across harsher than I intend, because I enjoyed the mix of foodie memoir, urban fantasy, splattery horror and vampire romance (which, in case you were wondering, is mercifully devoid of sparkling). As the story progressed, I began to suspect that McKinley's sprawling style comes not from a lack of skill but from a surfeit of it, from an inventiveness that expands like yeast, invading the book's every corner. Sure, it's sort of sloppy, but it's also amazingly rich. Werepigeons? Magical tattoos? Desserts made out of "butter, heavy cream, pecans and three kinds of chocolate" that are named after theological concepts? A taste this exotic might warrant getting a little messy.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Lutherankorean; Hat Tip: The Winding Road to Roundabout)