by Robin McKinley
Publication: September 1, 2003
My rating: 5/5 stars
Spoilers: This book has been out for 14+ years, so yes.
Robin McKinley has been writing standalone fantasy novels with realistically flawed, multi-dimensional characters for more than four decades. Sunshine, one of her more recent works, provides a welcome counterpoint to the trend of portraying supernatural creatures (vampires, in this case), as anything less than horrifying. Is this a vampire romance? Technically, I suppose. However, the "romance" (it's more like misguided lust that even the characters involved agree is unfortunate), is a tiny part of a story that's mostly about family/friends, dealing with trauma, and a really cool paranormal-apocalyptic setting.
The protagonist is Rae Seddon (Sunshine, to her friends). She's the baker at her stepdad's coffee shop, where she invents creatively named desserts and stays solidly out of the way of anything magical -- including her own heritage. That becomes impossible when she's captured by a sucker gang and has to use magic to free herself, along with her fellow captive, a vampire named Constantine. Most of the story involves Rae exploring the extent of her powers and trying to recover from the experience of almost being eaten by vampires while searching for the leader of the gang who captured her.
Because the novel is so strongly character-driven, the pace is often slow. That's not to say that nothing happens -- Rae's developing abilities get plenty of play, and there's enough action and plot development that the tension stays strong to the end. Still, there are two or three places where the pace slackens noticeably, to the overall detriment of the story.
Regarding the relationship between Rae and Con: I very much prefer reading about friendships to romances, and that's probably one reason why this book doesn't bother me like others in its genre. Rae's bond with Con was forged by a scarring (literally, in Rae's case) situation, but it grows based on trust and mutual sacrifice for each other. Romance wasn't an end goal for either, and the high point of their relationship is when they battle the antagonist together.
Sunshine has been one of my go-to re-reads for years; I've heard criticisms of the audiobook, but I listen to it almost every summer and I don't have any complaints. I recommend this novel to anyone who'd enjoy a light, atmospheric paranormal fantasy that emphasizes worldbuilding and character growth over romance. However, this might not be a book for readers who prefer tight pacing or an emphasis on plot. (Also, it'll likely make anyone with a sweet tooth very, very hungry.)
Recipe: Sunshine's Killer Zebras
Killer Zebras are two-toned cookies that are a favorite at the coffee shop in Sunshine. According to the author, they're based on Betty Crocker's harlequin cookies, also known as pinwheels, in which chocolate and vanilla dough are formed into a spiral. I wanted these to be a bit more zebra-like, so I kept the dough flavors but changed the pattern. I also used shortbread instead of sugar cookie dough as a matter of preference, but you could substitute your favorite sugar cookie recipe and make half chocolate with a bit of math and experimentation!
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp almond extract (or clear vanilla)
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup flour
Cream the butter, sugar, and salt for one minute. Weigh the mixture and divide it evenly between two bowls. Into one, stir the almond extract, followed by 1 1/4 cup flour. Working the dough as little as possible, form into a 1/2-thick square and wrap in plastic. Add the vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and 1/2 cup flour to the remaining half and shape similarly. Note that there will be less chocolate dough than almond. Refrigerate both dough squares until firm but not solid (about 45 minutes).
Remove dough from refrigerator and cut into strips of varying sizes. Alternating colors, form several striped sections of dough, then press the sections together at the edges to form a sheet. On a floured surface, rolling mat, or between pieces of plastic wrap, roll the dough to a bit less than 1/4-inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes (I used 2-inch circles; that created a lot of wasted dough, but I formed the scraps into a log to use as slice-and-bake marbled shortbread later).
Bake at 325°F for 10-20 minutes. The time will vary a lot based on size and thickness, so watch them closely! They're done when the white turns golden around the edges. Remove from sheet and cool completely.