To some extent, Twilight did ruin the vampire genre for me and the plethora of young adult paranormal romance novels in the market did nothing to improve the situation. On the other hand, I wasn’t too impressed with Dracula– perhaps the gruesome film adaptations led me to think the book was going to be a delectable horror romp and I was disappointed by the fact that it wasn’t. However I felt moderately comfortable with Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles– particularly the first three books- and enjoyed them not only for the Gothic undertones but also for her portrayal of the blood-sucking creatures of the night that balances their monstrous origins yet doesn’t veer too strongly into attractive-dark-angel-saving-virgin-girl territory.
So naturally, when I picked up Robin McKinley’s addition to the much-abused genre that was billed as a vampire romance for adults, I was very sceptical. But notwithstanding a few flaws, the book turned out to be delightful, somewhat unconventional and deeply satisfying. In fact, it seemed that I hadn’t read a dark fantasy tale that was just this good, in ages, and for someone who always had a flavour for the supernatural that’s saying something.
The novel tells the story of a woman named Sunshine who works in a family coffeehouse, makes the world’s best cinnamon rolls and lives a somewhat mundane life. She has a hectic routine, some decent friends, a don’t-kiss-don’t-tell boyfriend and is pleased with the ordinariness of her life till she drives out to the lonely lake one night to clear her mind and is abducted by a gang of vampires. Forced to wear a cranberry red dress and imprisoned in a derelict mansion, she discovers she’s not alone- she’s fresh blood for her fellow prison inmate and vampire Constantine.
When all hope seems lost, she draws on her long suppressed powers of magic taught by her grandmother to escape in broad daylight along with Constantine. But her attempts to return to normal life fail disastrously- the breast wound she sustained when abducted refuses to stop bleeding, she becomes progressively more exhausted by the day and she’s cornered by the paranormal investigation team who turn out to comprise of part-blood people including demons and werewolves. It seems Sunshine and Constantine have to forge an unlikely alliance to take on a fearsome foe, in order to save themselves as well as the world they love, that too just for the time being.
Perhaps one of the things that I particularly liked about this book was its richly layered world-building.
Although it’s one novel set in an alternate version of earth where humans and supernatural beings coexist, McKinley’s magical world is richly and perfectly realized, with myth, history and identity. There’s the mysterious Voodoo Wars that tipped the balance in favour of the vampires, citizens require a license to handle magic and there are professions devoted to creating failsafe charms and wards. The real and the unreal blend so perfectly, that magic seems an inexplicable part of daily life- a talent like any other. Moreover, although the novel’s universe encompasses a variety of supernatural creatures including the “were” people (pixies and demons) it’s vampires that seem to be the primary menace that all others seek to eradicate with little success.
McKinley also has a special talent for creating realistic and memorable characters. The novel’s protagonist Sunshine who often goes into long-winded flashbacks is likely to win you over with her warmth and wit. The vampire Constantine is brooding and decadent but nowhere as morose as Louis nor as pompous as Lestat from Anne Rice’s novels. He rarely speaks and when he does his words are measured and delicate and although a creature of the dark, he isn’t a bloodthirsty monster like the others. The supporting characters too have distinct personalities and storylines, and overall, the novel feels like a real world filled with real relatable people- which is a huge bonus.
But there are a few shortcomings. McKinley’s imagined universe begs several unanswered questions and the possibility of a sequel isn’t on the horizon. The climax feels somewhat weak and rushed- not at all appropriate for the suspense-ridden build-up and Sunshine’s frequent slip into flashbacks during crucial moments of action might annoy the average reader. Nevertheless the book is a triumph for the way it intelligently tackles the vampire genre and subverts Gothic tropes. The novel has a gritty neo-noir feel, humour abounds, and there’s intimacy but not the kind one usually expects. It is both a vampire and a romance novel but not in the conventional sense we use such terms.
And finally, although there are very few scenes that feature Sunshine and Constantine together (and perhaps this was a deliberate move)- they are extremely well-written and you might want to reread them a few times, not to understand the plot or the character dynamics better, but purely for pleasure. And perhaps this is where the novel truly shines- at being a very, very satisfying read.
Rating: 4.5/ 5
Previously published in Open Road Review.