by Robin McKinley
Berkley, 2003, ISBN 0-425-19178-8
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
McKinley's latest fantasy is set in a somewhat Buffyesque world, only rather darker and more pessimistic. The vampires, demons, werebeasts, and other assorted supernatural nasties are more pervasive and openly recognized by everyone. About 15-20 years prior to the opening of the story (our heroine, Sunshine, was a child probably ten or a little older, and is now in her mid-twenties), the Voodoo Wars inflicted a major hit on both the human population and the human economy. In place of the FBI, we have the SOF, Special Other Forces, with the primary responsibility of holding the Others, but most importantly the vampires, in check.
And they're losing. The SOF and the world council to which they answer believe that the vampires currently control about 20% of the world's capital, and that within a century they'll have enough control that it will be, basically, all over; they'll be able to set up serious human ranching.
It's in this happy context that Sunshine, a.k.a. Rae Seddon, baker extraordinaire at Charlie's Coffeehouse, decides to get an evening away from the noise and bustle of work and family (much the same, since Charlie is her stepdad) by driving out alone to the lake that's been pretty much totally deserted since the Voodoo Wars. It should be no surprise to the reader when she's snatched by vampires; a bit more surprise when she wakes up in an abandoned lakeside house chained to the wall next to a vampire who's also chained to the wall. And then rather more of a surprise (at least if you haven't read the dustflap, which gives this away) when the vamp declines to consume the meal so helpfully provided for him by his captors.
They remain captive for two days, feeling each other out and gradually revealing bits of their past to each other and the reader. Sunshine's father and grandmother, of whom we've gotten hints before this, were members of a magic-wielding family, and her grandmother gave Sunshine a little bit of magical training before she and Sunshine's father, along with the rest of their clan, vanished during the Voodoo Wars. Con (Constantine), the vampire, is engaged in a gang war with a local vampire boss, Bo (Beauregard). Con is somewhat handicapped in this gang war by the fact that he doesn't have a gang; he may, however, have other advantages which aren't apparent yet. Eventually they work out a temporary truce and escape, in the course of which it's revealed that the determinedly normal and unmagical Sunshine has inherited rather more of her father's talent than she has ever wanted to believe.
It's once she's safely home that Sunshine's life really gets complicated. She can't tell anyone what really happened; she's committed the one unforgivable crime of cooperating with a vampire. Her story of what happened at the lake makes no sense without vampires, but it makes no sense with vampires, either, because no one escapes from vampires. And she isn't even safe; her and Con's escape means that something extraordinary happened, with Bo rightly concluding that the something extraordinary must have involved Sunshine, as Con had been a prisoner for several weeks prior to that. And so she's not through cooperating with a vampire, at least if she wants some fate other than being another vampire's dinner.
This becomes a satisfyingly involved tale, with interesting and multilayered characters, but there are some annoying false notes. On the one hand, the vampires and other Others have been around and significant for a long time--Con himself is about four hundred years old, and was made by the head of a major gang at that time. On the other hand, there aren't enough changes in the culture for the Others, especially vampires, to have been significant for more than a hundred years at the outside. A particularly glaring example is that Dracula exists in apparently the form we know it in Sunshine's world, but more generally, except for human magic wielders being a registered and licensed combination of mi nority and professional class, and the world government and Special Other Forces that appear to date from the crisis of the Voodoo Wars, there just aren't any significant differences in social or political organization--which I find frankly incredible.
There are smaller annoyances, also, some of which are undoubtedly just me being picky, but nevertheless they do bug me. On page 112, Sunshine tells us "...and Johnny Appleseed never existed." Now, many children in Massachusetts, and undoubtedly in other states where he was active, can tell you that Johnny Appleseed, real name John Chapman, was quite real, born in Leominster, MA in 1774 and died in 1845, and in between did pretty much what he is reputed to have done--planted lots of apple trees and promoted the cultivation of apples as a fruit crop. Ms. McKinley assures me that this is an intentional change--this is, after all, an alternate America, but, frankly, I don't buy it. If Johnny Appleseed took the time and trouble to be real in our relatively mundane world, where he was only promoting stable settlement of the then frontier by promoting apple cultivation, he'd certainly be real in Sunshine's America, where apple wood is the choice of knowledgable vampire stakers everywhere. Moreover, the non-existence of Johnny Appleseed and his apple trees never becomes significant, is never mentioned again; it's just a throwaway line. Call my cynic, but I think Ms. McKinley just tossed in a wrongly-remembered detail without checking her facts, and then got defensive when it was pointed out to her.
Another of my complaints is clearly nothing but personal pique.
Sunshine's friend Aimil is a librarian in the large local library system. She's two years older than Sunshine, and Sunshine, we're told earlier, barely graduated high school on time. So when, on page 199, we're told that in Sunshine's junior year Aimil went to library school and then did an internship at the local library two years later, culminating in being a professional librarian somewhere between two and four years after high school graduation, we have librarianship, which in our mundane world is a master's degree, reduced to possibly an associate's degree, or at the most generous interpretation, possibly a bachelor's degree. Ms. McKinley states that she believes that apprenticeship should be used much more extensively than it currently is; however, she does not casually eliminate the advanced education currently required for other professions in this alternate America, nor does she explain where the librarians of Sunshine's world acquire a broader intellectual framework than one or two years of post-high school classwork plus one or two years of on the job training would provide.
But that's just personal pique.
There are indications, either disturbing or encouraging depending on your preferences, that this may be the first of a series. Con and Sunshine's story clearly isn't finished, there's a major and unresolved problem inside the Special Other Forces, and the story of where exactly Sunshine's paternal relatives disappeared to is left dangling tantalizingly, to name just the most obvious set-up-for-a-series loose threads. Regardles, though, this is a fun book, absorbing even with the occasional false notes.