To start with there was always Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which everyone would read in their teens and scare themselves silly. Most likely a fifteen year old reading it today would ask -“What’s the fuss dude?” Nowadays books written for 10 year olds are scarier and it’s the parents who find them frightening.
For years vampires were part of the B grade horror movie culture; people were fascinated and frightened at the same time by bloodsucking creatures of the night who lived in creaky castles, slept in coffins and drank the blood of hapless girls in white nightgowns. But all said and done, they were rural creatures, flapping about as bats in the foreground of full moons, over villages which exuded the smell of garlic.
Then in the 1970s came Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ which glamorised them. This representation was helped considerably by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt playing the main roles in the 1994 movie version of the book. Suddenly vampires had become sophisticated city creatures; living amongst us and using us for their own ends, not necessarily just as food. After that came Buffy and stood the concept of ‘hapless girls’ on its head.
However, it’s mainly due to the popularity of Twilight, that you can’t turn on the television these days without being accosted by a vampire serial. There is only so much that one can take of watching teens who have supposedly lived a few centuries, fangs out and feeding on someone’s blood. What happened to all the old vampires? In the mix are werewolves, witches and things unknown. Recently the YA section in bookstores has been divided into two genres: 1) vamp and 2) everything else.
Vampires, we are told, are charming, perfect, eternal(unless staked through the heart), beautiful, can be good or evil, capable of reform, can occasionally expose themselves to daylight, they drink blood out of wine glasses like connoisseurs. And they are extremely desirable by young girls who have involved relationships with them and aspire to become just like them. Where is the creepiness? The sinister is replaced by the merely gory. Twilight and its spin offs verge on the boring, banal and repetitive. And frankly we don’t think there is anything attractive about Robert Pattinson wearing all that talcum powder and red lipstick. But then again we are not fourteen.
So it came as a huge surprise to us that an author whose books we enjoyed had actually written a vampire story. Robin McKinley has rehashed fairy tales and created fables with humour and a matter of fact attitude towards the magical. Her foray into the vampire genre was, for us, rather unusual. But ‘Sunshine’ is a book worth reading, despite it being a vampire tale. It is so enjoyable that Neil Gaiman called it “Pretty much perfect.”
The story is set in an alternative world where ‘others’ (non-humans) roam. The world is similar enough to ours and there are mentions of Sherlock Holmes and the globenet (internet). But you know it is different because there are references to something called the Voodoo wars between humans and the ‘others’, which have devastated large portions of the planet. The main protagonist is Rae Seddon (nicknamed Sunshine) who works as a baker in her step-father’s coffee shop. But she is not as ordinary as she seems because she has magical abilities, inherited from her father. She ends up rescuing a vampire (Constantine) from a rival vampire and in turn Constantine saves her life. This results in them both being bound to each other in something resonant of ‘deep magic’ which is never quite explained but only referred to as ‘that which binds’. In order to survive they then are forced to battle the particularly vicious rival, and his gang.
PS: There are no pretty vampires in this book. At no time has Robin McKinley been kind in describing any of them, including Constantine. The words she uses are sinister and alien; their non-humanness is constantly stressed.
LL: This is definitely not a book about teenagers in love with vampires and vice versa. The bond between Sunshine and Con is always very uneasy and the natural antipathy between humans and vampires is obvious.
PS: This book was written before Twilight but somehow never became as popular.
LL: That is probably because it was written for adults and the YA novels drive the market.
PS: But that still doesn’t explain its obscurity. The only thing I can think of is that the style of writing, though very beautiful, could be a little difficult to comprehend.
LL: It’s just that it was not hyped and there are no lovey-dovey, let’s go gooey eyed over gorgeous vamps bits. Otherwise the story is complex, set in a very different and fascinating world…
PS: The heroine is a person with flaws and yet the will to do what is right. And there is food! Which we keep coming back to. What’s not to like?
LL: I like the descriptions of the coffee shop and its regulars who know to come to tables outside the back door to avoid the touristy traffic.
PS: There is something to be said about a heroine who thinks of cinnamon rolls even while battling the forces of evil.
LL: Food again. But at least in Sunshine there is mention of evil in relation to vampires. Unlike Twilight and its clones where the bad vamps kill and the good ones don’t. As simple as that.
PS: Neither is there, in this book, any anxiety on the part of any humans to become a vampire.
LL: But it is interesting to note that in all the talk about nasty, evil ‘others’, the most vicious comment is reserved for lawyers! They are described as “large botulism bacteria in three piece suits.”
PS: McKinley wouldn’t be the first and last instance of people equating lawyers with vampires. But we know better, right?
LL: As far as we know vampires are fantasy and lawyers aren’t. But coming back to Sunshine, there is so much left unanswered which keeps you wanting more.
PS: Except McKinley has repeatedly stated in her blog, much to the disgust of her readers, that she is not in the habit of writing sequels.
LL: I like the way she has categorised her readers into three: the angry, the hysterical and the helpful. The angry who are upset with the loose ends, the hysterical who are…well, hysterical. And the helpful who send her unending lists of the topics that have to be considered in the next book.
PS: We’ve been all three at some point or the other and have now given up. But we don’t mind being surprised.
LL: Yet, Sunshine, despite being open ended, strangely enough leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction and is well worth the read.