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by Robin McKinley

(Bantam Press, £10.99, 389 pages, trade paperback, published 1 October 2003. Bantam Books, £6.99, 476 pages, paperback, this edition published 7 October 2004; ISBN 0-553-81583-0.)

Review by Meredith

Robin McKinley has written several fantasy novels, including versions of classic fairy tales such as Beauty, retelling the story of Beauty cover scanand the Beast, as well as a version of the Robin Hood story. She has won awards, and many of her fantasies are very popular as well as highly acclaimed. But, there was nothing to indicate that she also did occult horror. So seemingly out of nowhere comes this excellent and original vampire story.

It is several pages into the book before you realise that Sunshine's small-town America is not ours. Sunshine's world is one in which a never-quite-defined struggle between humans and supernatural creatures -- the Voodoo Wars -- has decimated the human population and wiped whole countries off the map. People live now in much smaller settlements, with large areas of towns abandoned to the night.

Unfortunately, night is not empty. This world contains a wide variety of not-so-mythical creatures: were-animals, part demons, magic users, and the great enemy: vampires. Human magic users can build up wealthy dynasties as they create the charms and amulets which protect people from evil. But most other supernatural creatures are discriminated against and face an uncertain future full of prejudice and suspicion. And it is not just legal to kill vampires, it is mandatory.

The reason is that there still is an ongoing, unseen war between humans and the unfriendly paranormal creatures. And according to those in the know, humans are losing. Within 100 years, one policeman predicts, humans will be nothing more than cattle for vampires.

So when the young woman nicknamed Sunshine is snatched by a gang of vampires and literally staked out in an abandoned house next to another captive, she gives herself up for lost. Especially when she realises her fellow captive is a vampire and she is meant to be his dinner.

But, this one is different. During the night he controls his urges and refuses to attack Sunshine. And when daylight comes the tables are turned. He is now the vulnerable one, and if he is to survive the day Sunshine has to take a huge step and actually help a vampire.

During the course of their captivity together, Sunshine discovers she has previously unknown magical powers. (There is a neat pun on words throughout the book in that she depends on daylight and sunlight.) However, her powers were not unknown or unexpected to a small group of police, the Special Other Forces. And as she is drawn helplessly into a power struggle between vampires, she doesn't realise that the Specials are closing in on her.

Far, far more than just a teeth and cape saga, this is a book which is driven by its characters and the sense of mystery it creates. Sunshine's intense feelings following her extraordinary experiences draw the reader in. There is an excellent section as she nearly faces a nervous breakdown, and it is very easy to empathise with her as she tries to cope with psychic shocks as well as physical traumas.

On the one hand we are given a fair amount of detail on the trivia of Sunshine's life in a small town, working in the family coffee shop where she is the chief baker, spending time with her family and friends from the shop, loving her boyfriend, who also works in the coffee shop.

But, on the other hand, there are things that are not explained. The coffee shop seems to be such a focal point for the neighbourhood -- and for the circle of regular customers and staff there -- that it's almost as if it, itself, is magic. Okay, Sunshine has to return to it every day since it is her place of work. But she seems to think about it an awful lot of the time outside of work. And when she's there baking her muffins or chocolate cake, it seems more like a magical sanctuary.

Then there is the mysterious boyfriend, Mel. There are very strong hints that he is more than he seems to be, which is a cook in the coffee shop. For one thing, he is covered with heavy-duty protective magic tattoos, more than even a former Hell's Angel biker, which he claims to be, would need. Secondly, he avoids the issue whenever Sunshine tackles him about his past. But there is no sense of menace from Mel. He is just one of the undefined elements which help make the book intriguing.

Also, of course, leaving a few undefined threads does mean that a sequel could be in the offing. In this case, I would welcome it. Sunshine is an appealing hero. Her world offers interesting possibilities for further stories, and McKinley's writing -- especially in the final scenes as Sunshine has to choose whether to reject the vampire or to maintain an unprecedented friendship between the species -- can be powerful.

Incidentally, the cover of this edition, with shades of grey showing nightime shadows on a rundown house, is simply terrible: dull and boring!

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