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This is sort of a book-review. But it sort of isn't. If it is, it'll be about 'Sunshine' by Robin McKinley, one of my old-time [say, adolescent] favorite authors, who generally writes fairy-tale retellings or old-school fantasy type stories. So I avoided reading 'Sunshine' (vampires! nooooo) for quite awhile, feeling betrayed. I know this is going to sound a bit weak/unbelievable at this point [post-Twilight fannishness], but I honestly can't stand vampire stories. I also don't like dragon stories, zombie stories, or really any kind of monster story, including werewolves until very recently (at this point, post-Jacob Black, I can't even find a single tendril of former werewolf distaste, but whatcha gonna do).

Anyway, I never disliked vampires or dragons or ghouls *per se*. I never liked them, either, but it's not that I disliked them. The reason I disliked monsters (in stories) is because pretty much no one [in pop media] dealt with them in a way I found either original or bearable; it was almost always one of three things:

- Action story - 1: An excuse to fight/kill/maim the vampire/dragon/beastie/etc (yeay? I sort of automatically feel like defending them, if not for...)
- Moral story - 2a: An excuse to 'cure' monsters 'cause they're actually 'good' (blech!!! die! die! DIE~! ...um... I hate those stories mostest... I'm looking at you, EDWARD... and the worst part is that I resent them 'cause I only wish this were done well, and without white-washing);
- 2b: An excuse to set up stupid good/evil dichotomies, because monsters are 'bad' (yeay for 'subtle' moral lessons learned);
- Sexual story - 3: An excuse to sexualize 'darkness' and make it your bitch (wouldn't be so bad if this wasn't also generally the least well-written type, and also feels like TMI about the writer).

In any case: 'Sunshine' is for those of us who can't stand vampire stories. Who think vampires ought to be disturbing and icky, thankyouverymuch [and I'll pass on the blood], but also fascinating and symbolically meaningful [because just evil-bad-wrong monsters are bloody boring... ahem].

Also: I've read a lot of reviews of various books either praising a 'spunky' heroine who doesn't need her man to 'rescue' her or attacking a girl who either angsts or cries about various issues, but especially her boyfriend issues, and/or doesn't do anything constructive. As if, I dunno, that was literally the only redeeming quality that distinguishes a woman: she's intelligent + 'strong' if she's careful/tough/independent and she's weak + stupid if she's emotional/needy/insecure. I mean... and this is the 'enlightened modern perspective'.

You don't 'dislike' or feel afraid of monsters, in other words: you kick their ass while not getting yourself into too many situations where that's too necessary [careful, remember]. Period.

Seriously? It's like all these women want to be these girls' mother.

Anyway, Sunshine (the heroine of McKinley's book) probably pisses all these women off. Why? They probably (if they thought about it) wouldn't be able to decide whether she's strong or weak, dumb or intelligent, kick-ass or pathetic. YES. This is my kind of book. ♥. But just in case you misunderstand-- Sunshine is strong, and independent, and intelligent. She's just not... a superhero, or a faker, or someone who denies their emotions for strength (rather, it's a sign of when she's feeling weak). She's real, mostly.
    So, ok, Sunshine has all these contradictions and aspects to her. She's a real character, so she's weak when she's afraid (monsters that can eat you! are scary) and yet honestly fascinated with these monsters and aware of it (fangirl represent!), and she's angsty when her world falls apart (because it's not like there's a handbook). She both overthinks things and rushes in when she's emotional; she tries to be strong and independent-- and she is-- and yet wants-- needs-- her lover to hold her when she's past endurance. She can tell him what she needs, too. (Also, bonus: there are two love interests and she genuinely cares for both, but it's not a love triangle.)

The thing is, I can tell McKinley's both freaked out and fascinated by vampires too-- certainly, more to the point, Sunshine is, and that creates a sort of layered, rich dynamic. We find out more about 'her' vampire slowly, and the pacing is such that we never get dunked in too far too fast-- the mysteriousness, the Otherness, keeps its hold. The 'Others'-- specifically, vampires, who're called the 'darkest Others' here-- they remain dark, distant, separate. And yet there's a gradual, difficult bridging that does go on, both within Sunshine herself and between her and her vampire. Like, well, like fumbling in the dark.

One thing I love about this book is that McKinley never even comes close to 'defending' vampires, or creating a 'good' one; Sunshine's vampire/love-interest, Con, is clearly different, but we never quite find out different how. He's not evil, but he's not good, either; he's the 'dark Other', and there's no softening that. He's also believably controlled (with hints of vulnerability), emotionally numb/withdrawn (with hints of a thaw in relation to Sunshine alone), believably different down to body-language and gestures/expressions. Vampires are still former humans here, but the resemblance is complicated. And often slight.

Another thing I love is all the hanging threads, all the potential that McKinley leaves hinted at and unexplored (while wrapping up her specific plotline satisfactorily)-- this is something I've sorely missed in the series-crazed urban fantasy market these days. This is the type of book I used to read all the time, growing up-- unsurprisingly, since McKinley was a fixture of my adolescence-- meaty, complex, alive, as well as stylistically adept. There's atmosphere here. There's background. There's life in that background-- just being there, just existing. Because that's how life is. That's how stories are, to me-- one story necessarily out of many possible ones. One story told, a thousand always possible to tell.

And also, all the magic symbolism and the way magic was handled in general made me happy; I'm a big sucker for magic systems done in an intuitive, meaningful way that ties in both with some spiritual/larger picture understanding and the individual's nature/gifts and psychological development. The duality between light-- sunshine/trees/creatures-- and dark (as distinct from Otherness, and as distinct from evil), and drawing your power from your 'element'-- and how one's strength in one translates into affinity for and strength in resisting or controlling its opposite-- all that was awesome.

I guess a part of me wishes there was more romantic resolution, but at the same time I don't need it. In a way, this sort of unknown quality underscores what I think a romance with vampires could or should be-- it introduces the major concepts yet shies away from narrowing it down to 'yes' or 'no' linear relationship progression. 'Will they or won't they' is not the correct question, quite; here, Sunshine and her vampire have reached an understanding. They are inevitably connected, each the flip side of the other. They're both sort of curious and befuddled by the other's existence-- and being at that ledge of not-quite-knowing, at the very beginning of their journey together even at the end, that seems appropriate in a more symbolic way. Being on the edge, holding hands-- then leaping.

January 2012

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