The plot of this book is a classic coming-of-age, accept-your-powers, kill-the-bad-guy story. Rae Seddon (nicknamed “Sunshine”) lives a quiet life as the Cinnamon Roll Queen of Charlie’s Coffeehouse, until one night she is kidnapped by vampires. They take her to an abandoned mansion and chain her up beside another prisoner . . . a vampire. But the vampire, Constantine, does not eat her as she expects, and when Rae calls upon her long-forgotten powers, they escape together. She thinks that she can return to a normal life, but finds that the experience has bonded her with Constantine, whose nemesis is still looking for them. If Rae is going to survive, she must join forces again with Constantine and master her own burgeoning powers.
There are definite strengths to this book. One is the narrative voice; Rae tells her story in a friendly and rather bubbling voice that can make ten pages of rambling about her life interesting and enjoyable. Another is the setting: Charlie’s Coffeehouse, with all its quirky employees and customers, is vividly described. So too is the world, an alternate Earth recovering from the Voodoo Wars, where you don’t go into certain parts of town because you might get eaten. And the loving descriptions of food are luscious and very enjoyable, giving an added texture to the book.
Unfortunately, there were several problems with the book that prevented it from really working. One was the heroine, Rae. I was never able to quite believe her as a character; a lot of her reactions felt “off” in some indefinable way. In particular, I could not believe that in her childhood she became powerful enough to transform objects, and then simply ignored the powers once her mentor disappeared. Furthermore, that she would not think of using those powers until the second day of her captivity seemed simply incredible.
Another main problem was the climax: without giving too much away, there’s an extended fight scene that’s described in the most vague manner possible. I got absolutely no idea how the characters were physically managing to fight their way through a crowd of raging vampires, and half the time I was unable to get any clue of the setting. The narrative did become more focused at the final confrontation, but I found that also unsatisfying: it seemed too easy. In the end, all Rae has to do is walk up, concentrate really, really hard–and bingo! She wins.
The conclusion, also, was unsatisfying. McKinley introduces a lot of interesting elements and characters, and then leaves them hanging. This is understandable, given that she seems to be shooting for an open-ended, “beginning of the story”-type conclusion . . . but it doesn’t work, because Rae’s character doesn’t really work. I was never really convinced by her fears of her powers and her agonizing over her choices; I felt like they were tacked on and not really disturbing her. (Perhaps the cheerful narrative voice contributed to the problem.) Therefore the ending, when she does accept herself and her powers, did not feel very satisfying.
The most annoying part of this book, however, was a sexual scene that was so undermotivated that it was laughable. I mean, really. If you, by means of your still not-fully-understood powers, had just accidentally teleported yourself (naked) into the lair of the (also naked) vampire who was your reluctant ally, thereby wakening him from a lengthy coma, would your first thought be, “Oh goody, let’s have sex?” No, I thought not. The fact that Rae has shown no previous attraction to Constantine, and in fact already has a boyfriend, only makes it worse. Luckily Constantine comes to his senses at the last second and throws her across the room. Unluckily, it doesn’t knock any sense into Rae’s head; her only reaction is crankiness that nothing happened.
Morally, this book is problematic. Along with the aforementioned scene, and Rae’s definitely carnal relationship with her boyfriend, there’s also a good deal of murkiness with the vampires. McKinley never comes up with a consistent answer to the question of whether or not vampires are intrinsically evil; she describes them as the creepiest, most obscene-looking creatures imaginable, yet Rae comes to absorb some of Constantine’s powers, and she accepts this as an Okay thing. Constantine says that there are several ways of being a vampire, and it’s implied that he has chosen the less evil one; but just how good (or even ambiguous) this can be is left unanswered. Since one of the book’s main conflicts is Rae’s internal debate over whether or not she should associate with Constantine, it’s a pity that the author doesn’t explore the issue further.
Content-wise, there is some violence, though nothing too bad. The almost-sex scene between Rae and Constantine, though it doesn’t go anywhere, is described in rather crude terms; Rae also makes some comments about her boyfriend that I really would have preferred not to hear. It’s definitely not a book for young people.