24 September 2007

Sunshine

All of us have pet hates. Writers are no exception. In fact, they may even be the paradigm example of people with pet hates. One writer friend of mine cannot bear vampire stories or stories written in the first person. I must admit I’m not wild about vampire stories myself (too many of them are simply an excuse for the author to indulge in soft porn). As for first-person narrative, it is very effective when it is done well, but it is very hard to do well and the bad stuff can be really cringe-making.

Having said that, I have just discovered the exception that may or may not prove the rule. Robin McKinley's 2003 novel Sunshine is a (sort of) vampire story and it is unquestionably written (very well) in the first person. I picked the book up from a second-hand book stall simply on the strength of the author’s name. McKinley has written some seriously good fantasy of a fairly traditional kind.

The novel is set in . . . well, at first, I thought it was a post-apocalyptic America, but after a few pages I realized that it couldn’t be our world at all. For a start, magic is openly used. And the world is populated by other sentient beings besides humankind: the Others include various kinds of demon and, of course, vampires. The human race appears to be recovering from a catastrophic conflict known as the Voodoo Wars. However, as one of the characters reveals midway through the book, there is an ongoing conflict between vampires and humankind, and the vampires are winning.

The central character of the novel is a young woman called Rae (‘Sunshine’ to her friends). At the beginning of the novel she wants nothing more than to continue enjoying her quiet life, working in her step-father’s coffee shop alongside her boyfriend, an ex-biker called Mel. The idyll is shattered when she is captured by a band of vampires. Remarkably they don’t kill her immediately: she is intended as food for a vampire they are holding captive. Even more remarkably she manages to escape (and release the captive vampire) by tapping into the magical power she has inherited from her long-vanished biological father. The novel follows her as she tries to come to terms with her dubious gift and forges an unlikely alliance with the vampire she freed.

There are hints of Buffy the Vampire Slayer here – but only hints. Yes, there is action and adventure but there is also really good characterization and excellent description. In particular, the magical systems that operate in this alternate earth are well thought out and lovingly described. Likewise with the vampires: instead of being just another take on an increasingly cliched monster, McKinley’s vampires are unhuman in a number of new ways (not least their spatial perception and the way they move from place to place).

Neil Gaiman thinks very highly of it; so I’m in good company. If you want to find out more, you can read a sample on Robin McKinley’s website.