Top critical review
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"Beauty and the Vampire"
on December 8, 2003
Sunshine is destined I think, to be one of those books people either love or hate. As a McKinley fan any new book by her is to be welcomed, but having finished this I'm left in the curious position of having liked it in spite of it's flaws, and thus sympathetic to a number of reviewers who have NOT enjoyed reading it at all. Part of the problem is likely to be the disconnect between the familiar, young adult novelist and fairytale re-teller we've come to love and that author departing, so to speak, from the text to try something new. Although I had problems with Sunshine, I'm inclined to give McKinley the benefit of the doubt because I'm always glad to see authors trying to stretch beyond their comfortable niche. Also, I think McKinley has managed to find that most elusive of things, a new take on an over-saturated genre. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed my Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, Tanya Huff, et al. but the field has gotten over-crowded with similar stories about sexy, bad-boy vampires and the women that love them.
McKinley's vampires are genuinely loathsome creatures that aside from being human-shaped, don't share a lot of similarities with humans. I was convinced Constantine was really was an alien creature who wasn't wild about having anything to do with a human. Not only that, he's ugly, smells funny and generally has a terror-inducing presence. He's definitely not the in-humanely handsome, charming, sexy, and powerful vampire figure that is currently in vogue. And although Sunshine and Con develop a "bond" it is more in the nature of an obligation where the two parties would be just as happy to have nothing to do with one another under better circumstances. Although it doesn't get explored in depth, Sunshine is legitimately concerned about the morality of choosing to let such an evil creature exist. Now Con is a bad guy who has chosen a different way of un-life than other vampires, but McKinley never really forces Sunshine to confront what that means. He's obviously less bad than the villain, but by how much? We don't know because Con never really does anything "evil" except to kill the doe. We don't know much about his history and that's a flaw on the author's part. Depending on how she explored it, his concrete actions would have framed a more compelling dilemma for our heroine than what her generalized understanding of the evil of the Others gave her. But on the whole, I thought her take on vampires was interesting enough that it boosted the book past some serious flaws.
I also liked the thought that went into Sunshine's element. A really nice, fresh twist that explores the opposites attract theory in the sense that she is the embodiment of daylight while vampires are the embodiment of darkness, and that by being so much of one she is drawn to the opposite element, much as one coin has two different but connected sides. At the same time, her association with the dark possibly `taints' her by incorporating vampiric elements like seeing in the dark and sense of direction to her arsenal. Whether the same is true for Con is left open, or perhaps hopefully to be explored in a sequel.
The biggest problems with this book were the narrative. Sunshine's first person voice was difficult to connect with. She too often came across as whiny and pathetic, making her hard to sympathize with. When the whole book rests on the singular voice, you want to make an effort to give someone the readers can relate to, though they don't have to be perfect. The other glaring problem with Sunshine's voice is that it was too often the vehicle for large exposition dumps. The information was necessary, but I think there were cleverer ways to do that didn't so obviously break up the flow of the plot. Also, the sentence structures and word choices McKinley uses as Sunshine were awkward to the ear, consistently throwing me out of the flow of the story. I especially was annoyed by the phony slang that felt forcibly inserted to help differentiate this world as futuristic. `Sheer" really bothered me until I decided that it was slang for kosher. The lack of dialogue between characters was equally problematic. I don't think there was an actual conversation at all between Sunshine and her mom for instance, and without conversation between Sunshine and the other characters, they never really got a chance to become fleshed-out. Mel was a prime example. He's this intriguing guy, little bit bad-boy but a cook and you know he's got something going on, but what? Heck, we don't even get to see inside Con's head. I just wish that there has been more to connect me to the other characters. I will say there were some funny comments and observations but on the whole, the structure of the writing was very disjointed. Perhaps that fact I felt compelled to struggle past those flaws should be attributed to the strength of the basic story.
When Sunshine tells Con the tale of Beauty and the Beast, I think McKinley is definitely alluding to Sunshine as being a modern re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast, inserting the vampire for the Beast. I was also reminded of two of my favorite books by her, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, both structurally and in similar characters. This is definitely a book that with more polish and trim could have been a McKinley classic. As it stands I think this book is symptomatic of a writer's growing pains as she tries to explore some familiar themes in a new way. Sunshine is a strong story that ultimately fails in it's execution. I'd definitely read a sequel, one where hopefully McKinley's very well-deserved story, character building and writing skills can really shine.