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Robin McKinley
Berkley Books, 400 pages

Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley was born in 1952 in Warren, Ohio. She attended Dickinson College and graduated summa cum laude from Bowdoin College. In 1978, her first novel, Beauty, was accepted on its first submission. She lives in Hampshire, England, along with her writer husband, Peter Dickinson, and three whippets. Besides five novels and two collections, Robin McKinley has had two children's picture books published: My Father is in the Navy and Rowan.

Robin McKinley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Stone Fey
SF Site Review: Rose Daughter
SF Site Review: Rose Daughter

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

I've seen Robin McKinley accused of having only one plot: outcast girl gets powers, kicks butt. This kind of reductionism, of course, can be extended to just about any story. Some of us over a certain age even used to have test questions on this in Tenth Grade Literature: What is the plot of this book? A) Man vs. Man, B) Man vs. Nature, C) Man vs.Universe. Perhaps this one can be further reduced to Woman Gains Choice, and we first encounter it in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, written in the early 1800s, wherein a female makes the choice concerning her future life and doesn't have to pay the price for such temerity by promptly dying of consumption. What it means is that woman gains power over her own life, and it's a trope women (and men) have been exploring in various story forms such as "Beauty and the Beast" for much longer: "Beauty and the Beast" being older, darker, representing women whose physical strength is less than man or beast (much less a combo), gaining equality through strength of will.

McKinley looks at this story form from several angles. Anyone who thinks her stories cookie cutter have not paid attention: The Blue Sword is probably the most conventional; Deerskin is not at all conventional. Now she's written a third take on this form with Sunshine.

This story has to do with vampires.

Now here a well-known story form intersects with a very popular trope. I've heard people talking about how sick they are of vampire stories, that they are stale, nothing new to be said, and of course vampires, like elves and dragons (and horses), have been tamed down by many writers into being very pretty forms of humans, pretty, powerful, but with very human (usually mapping heavily onto middle-teen adolescence) emotions.

Well, McKinley teases apart the threads of this familiar tapestry and reweaves them into a very strange form.

The story begins with our first person protagonist describing her pleasant but claustrophobic life as the baker for a roadside diner that is very popular in her small town. We gain the impression of ordinary folk of the type we recognize in our own lives, an ordinary diner, an ordinary small town. Exactly when the reader feels as closed in by all these cheery, well-intentioned ordinariness as does the protagonist, she takes off to be by herself to the lakeside, which, we are told, is not popular any more since the Voodoo Wars.

The Voodoo Wars? We've had, so far, exactly one other hint that things are not quite as ordinary as they appear when the protagonist mentions that one of her very normal brothers wants to go into Other law. Well, 'other' is easily assumed to be on the side of the downtrodden, and on goes the story: Voodoo Wars catches the eye but the story still marches on a few paragraphs, and then, abruptly, while she's at the lakeside, the vampires come. This is page 12.

I had to look back at that beginning to really appreciate the mastery of McKinley's story-telling skills. Twelve pages of ordinariness, and a cliff-hanger, after which she pauses to tell us that the worst of the Others are vampires. Okay... then this is our world, but with vampires. No, wait, there's just this tiny mention of demons. But the story flashes on, and the protagonist is taken by vampires to a disintegrating ballroom, forced to dress in an extravagant crimson gown, and shackled to the wall-within reach of another vampire. Who is also shackled to the wall. Then they leave, giggling.

The story takes off like a rocket from there: we find out the protagonist's name after we find out about the power of names, we find out more about vampires, and the Voodoo Wars, and the protagonist's background. Boundaries are broken over and over, and the reader, along with the characters, has to struggle to redefine them. The ordinary roadside inn with its ordinary characters turns out to be an anchor of relative safety in an increasingly strange and dangerous world. This is not our world. It's even more threatening, more perilous, but there are ways to fight it. Each ones exacts its cost: there are no wish-fulfillment mega-powers gained just by suffering winsomely enough. Power has to be fought for, inwardly and outwardly, it rips apart lives and requires dispassionate remapping of one's universal landscape. And using power is painful, just as a real punch bruises the attacker as well as the victim.

Along the way McKinley examines families, love, romance, sexual attraction, morality, ethics, deception, the social contract, eschatology, the perils of responsibility. Absolutely nothing is easy -- except, perhaps, the sharing of food.

McKinley's vampire is not pretty, does not react with adolescent emotion; he is compelling, and a fascinating study in how human can become alien, yet retain a conflicted nexus of human traits. The ending is not neatly tied off, but is breathtaking with possibility. I sure hope she returns to this world. There is so much more to explore and to say -- and I really want to know more about the spinster landlady, who was my favorite character of all.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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