Alien Affections (Sunshine and Dragonhaven)

Could someone please tell me where to get a really good cinnamon roll in Montreal, bleached and tender and dripping with cream cheese icing (not sticky glaze)? If you’ve read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, you’ll know why. If you haven’t, I must warn you about two things: spoilers (below), and food cravings.

Rae (“Sunshine”) Seddon, eponymous narrator and protagonist, does normal really, really well and really, really hard. She’s a marginal high school graduate who is contentedly working as a baker at her parents’ café. Her relationship with her stepfather and younger half-brothers is fond, though that with her mother, who does normal even harder, is strained. But Sunshine is testifying to her normalcy at fragrant detail (cinnamon rolls, pleeeease) while shackled to the wall of a deserted house, side by side with a vampire. In her world, humans are trying desperately to maintain privilege and order despite the rising population of non-humans, the most powerful, feared, and hated of whom are the vampires. Having let her guard down, Sunshine has become the pawn in a feud between vampires, the only thing preserving her life being her fellow captive’s determination not to gratify his enemies by feeding on her. Con – Constantine – is an atypical vampire in that he is a loner, without the retinue that vampires gather around them as age robs them of their tolerance for light. Direct sunlight would still kill him, and the torture of successive day upon day of captivity is eroding his sanity; he is a dangerous cellmate. “Speak,” are his first words. “Remind me that you are a rational creature.” But Sunshine has another reason for doing normal really, really hard. Her vanished father was a member of a family of powerful magic-handlers, and she has inherited a variety of abilities that have lain largely quiescent until now, including the ability to transform small objects, like a pocket-knife into a shackle-key … and to shield vampires from the sun. When she transmutes her pocket knife into a key and frees herself, she chooses, for reasons she does not fully understand, to take Con with her on a day-long walk to safety.

In Sunshine, Robin McKinley seems to set out to explore the nature of connection when all easy affinities are absent: the affinities of species, the affinities of erotic attraction, the affinities of sympathy. Con is not a scary-but-sexy vampire; Con is a scary-but-scary vampire. Sunshine’s initial descriptions dwell upon his grey skin, his horrific laugh, his terrifying swiftness of movement, the uncomfortable fit of his body as he carries her (so that her lacerated bare feet not leave a revealing blood-trail). An accidental, though charged, mutual carnal impulse ends equally quickly in mutual repulsion. Though familiarity makes him “Con”, a chance word or gesture shifts him back to “vampire”. Nevertheless, what begins on her side as an ill-understood impulse (“I hate bullies.”) and on his as recognition of an obligation, develops into a mutual commitment that is more than an alliance against Con’s enemies, now hers.

The price to be paid for this ambiguous but intense connection is alienation from her own species. Sunshine is virtually alone with her secrets, unable to confide in her family or the SOF (Special Other Forces) agents who have been part of her cafe ‘family’ and, who, she discovers, have been keeping watch over her for years. To them, Con is and always will be one of the enemy. Furthermore, Con has gifted her with the vampire ability to see in darkness, but it distorts her daylight vision as well, leaving her trying to conceal her stumbling disorientation. But by the end of the book, Sunshine has grown considerably – though far from painlessly – in understanding of herself and her power, and with Con at her side can begin to explore the night.

The fifteen-year-old protagonist of Dragonhaven, on the other hand, does not even bother to try to do normal. As the son of the Director of the only viable sanctuary for dragons – yes, flying, fire-breathing and all – in continental America, he has been raised within the sanctuary by his widowed father and the sanctuary’s staff, and wishes nothing more than to train as a park ranger. While in Sunshine, McKinley interrogated the limits of the cross-species relationship between adults, and a man and a woman, in Dragonhaven the cross-species relationship is the one between parent and child. For on his first solo expedition into the wilds of the park, Jake finds a dying dragon and the charred corpse of an unauthorized – and suspiciously well armed – trespasser. Beside the dragon are five newborn dragonets, four dead, one barely breathing. Years later Jake reflects that only someone like himself, raised in the park, and still grieving his own mother, would have been able to recognize the mother in the dying dragon’s eye. Responding to that imperative, he picks up the tiny dragonet and slips it – her – inside his shirt.

It’s a gruelling introduction to parenthood, adopting an baby creature – an embryo, really, since McKinley’s dragons are marsupials – that is kettle-hot to the touch and yet must have constant skin contact. As with Sunshine and her vampire, Jake gives detail, of the burns, the exhaustion, the chronic headaches that he eventually discovers are a consequence of the dragons’ (yes, plural) attempts to communicate. The uncertainty of the new parent is magnified by the complete lack of information on even the most basic care. His absorption with Lois’ needs leave him barely aware of the rest of humanity for months. His isolation is heightened by the need for secrecy: contradictions within the law concerning dragons – exemplifying human ambivalence towards them – make Jake’s adopting and raising Lois as much a criminal act as the poacher’s murder of her mother and siblings. Now the park visitors, social workers and educators whom he has hitherto regarded as a mere nuisance are the enemy. While Jake struggles through early parenthood, the park is besieged by the lawyers and supporters of the dead poacher’s wealthy and unforgiving parents. And as Jake makes a painful, incomplete, and imperfect breakthrough with Lois’ elders – another question, how do you communicate when you don’t even have a modality in common, much less a language – the park comes under literal siege.

Dragonhaven ends hopefully with members of both species continuing to build a relationship, despite their lack of a common language, through shared experience – an investment in goodwill that may end the dragons’ decline into extinction, as well as compelling humanity to better itself. Sunshine ends more ambiguously. One unusual young woman has ventured to build a relationship with one unusual vampire, but there is no evidence yet that it can or will influence humanity’s fate. There are also many unanswered questions: about Sunshine’s father and grandmother, who disappeared in the Voodoo wars of a decade before, about the connection between her family and the vampires, about whether or not she carries non-human blood and dangerous magic from that – possibly the reason for her mother’s intense and annoying protectiveness and SOF’s interest – about Con’s nature and his difference from other vampires, about Sunshine’s boyfriend Mel, tattooed motorcycle mechanic and possible mage, and a man whose surface is surely not all … Though in all honesty, I’m torn between wanting explanations and being convinced that it’s just perfect as it is – a book that has every right to hold on to its mysteries, even beyond the ending.