Welcome to Vampire Valentines!
This blog series in honor of Valentine’s Day is where I fangirl throughout the month of February about some of my favorite takes in multimedia on vampires, dhampirs, and their blood-sucking ilk.
Robin McKinley is one of those authors who writes brilliant, gem-like novels, but I feel like almost no one knows about her. If the name does ring a bell, it’s usually connected to her Damar Duology (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown). A few people might also recognize her retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale: Beauty (loved it!) Rose Daughter (an inferior retelling in my opinion), and Chalice (a much looser and more original take and by far the most interesting!) But I don’t know how many people know that she wrote a vampire novel called Sunshine, which I stumbled across by accident, probably at a book sale, several years ago. I was familiar with her name thanks to Beauty and Chalice, both of which I love and reread on a regular basis.
The main character is Rae “Sunshine” Seddon, a pretty average young woman living in a very strange world. When you begin, everything seems normal. Rae works at a coffeehouse with her mother, stepfather, boyfriend, and numerous others. Life for her revolves around the coffeehouse, specifically baking. For the first several pages, this seems like an average American town… until you hear about the Voodoo Wars that raged between humans and fae beings known collectively as “the Others.’ The most deadly of these are vampires, which humanity has a kind of Cold War stalemate with. There are humans with magic, partbloods who are discriminated against, Were-folk of all kinds from chickens to Gila monsters, wards in tattoos, and other hallmarks of urban fantasy that are woven into the narrative. But Rae’s home is relatively safe under the watchful eye of the Special Other Forces (SOF), and she decides to take a trip out to the nearby lake… where she is captured by vampires. They chain her in an abandoned mansion with another vampire named Constantine, whom they hold a grudge against. But against all odds and expectations, Rae escapes… and frees Constantine as well. Which is not something humans are supposed to do, since vampires are their mortal enemies. Now Rae and Constantine have to figure out how to go on from this point… and that’s all I’ll say because I think I’ve already given enough spoilers for a stellar novel.
One of the things that I love about Sunshine is that as a borderline-YA novel about vampires, the vampires themselves are not beautiful. They are “Other” in every sense. Even though they look vaguely human, the way they move, act, even speak, is not. They are not attractive. They are not sparkly. They are the undead and they look it. (Constantine’s skin is often described as being the color of old mushrooms.) Maybe not as gross as zombies or other walking corpses, but still unnerving in the extreme. There seem to be wards that can repel or contain vampires to some extent, but no mention of silver or holy symbols being especially effective. Sunlight is deadly, as is a wooden stake through the heart, although good luck getting close enough to do that since vampires can mesmerize with their eyes and have a weapon called “the Breath” which can render a human unconscious in seconds. There does seem to be some variation among vampires, depending on their diet, although this isn’t explored in great detail. But something about it makes Constantine different from the rest of his kind.
I really like Constantine. He’s another wonderful enigma with a sense of honor or personal code that allows him to ally with, and even care for, Rae, although what exactly that might mean to a vampire is unclear. Through him, Rae (and the reader) learn more about vampires, a window into their ways that no one else has ever seen through. But he’s is enigmatic in a way that is closer to Don Simon Ysidro from the James Asher series than to Edward Cullen from Twilight. There’s the potential for romance, but more importantly for friendship and understanding. Rae’s conflicted feelings about Constantine and their growing bond is very believable and understandable given what she’s been through and the way their world works. The book leaves you wanting to know more, and yet also wraps the story up so you aren’t left on an insane cliffhanger.
Sunshine was originally released as a standalone novel for adults since the main character Rae is about 25 to 27 years old, but it has been released under the YA banner as well. It’s a great read (and one that’s longer than it seems at first blush.) So if you like vampires and borderline YA urban fantasy that seriously plays with those tropes and transmutes them into gold, then I highly recommend you bask in Sunshine by Robin McKinley.