Friday, March 4, 2016

The Rain Demons, Part II

Paige McKenzie, The Awakening of Sunshine Girl

This review follows the previous review The Rain Demons

Sunshine Griffith sees dead people. Since her sixteenth birthday, the constant press of souls demanding her ministrations has become downright massive. As a luiseach, a Celtic healing being tasked with guiding souls into the afterlife, her newly manifested abilities risk becoming a full-time job. But she’s still untutored. A new mentor offers her guidance, but his motivations appear mixed. She soon realizes, she’s less his student than his experimental subject.

Writer-actress Paige McKenzie (with ghostwriter Alyssa Sheinmel), with her second Sunshine Girl novel, takes her story in a surprising new direction. The first volume was a contemporary spin on classic haunted house stories, combining vintage Shirley Jackson-ish horror with coming-of-age urgency. This second volume pushes on themes of identity and calling the first book only implied. It’s truly a sequel, not a retread of the prior book.

Newly minted in her supernatural abilities, the previously orphaned Sunshine meets her stone-faced, purposeful father. Within pages, she’s whisked away to study her powers, only to discover a crumbling, mostly abandoned campus. Think Hogwarts if everyone just left. While Sunshine studies with the only luiseach she’s ever met near her own age, her father conducts strange lab experiments. His discoveries may save humanity, but may cost Sunshine her life.

Reading this book, it’s impossible to avoid acknowledging the debts McKenzie owes to older authors. Sunshine is both the lastborn of her kind and the most powerful, a recurrent theme in Orson Scott Card’s novels. Her apprenticeship in a distant, sultry land, coupled with the “No, I’m Your Father” leitmotif (is her father heroic or villainous? I’m still unsure) will inevitably draw comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back.

Paige McKenzie, in a promotional still from
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl on YouTube
But McKenzie redeems this transparent borrowing by astutely incorporating Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth structure, which Card and Lucas also liberally appropriated. Volume One, I can say in retrospect, represented Campbell’s “Departure” pattern, with the Call, Refusal, and Threshold clearly signposted. This book explores the Initiation aspect, with Sunshine’s Trials, Atonement, and Apotheosis. Seasoned readers know what Volume Three brings—and Volume Three will happen, as the abrupt ending here demands.

Sunshine’s father, Aidan, spirits her from cold, rain-drenched Washington, to his university in central Mexico. This represents both opportunity and threat for Sunshine, since he quickly admits she’s hunted. Seems Aidan’s first experiment blew up, creating massive unintended consequences, for with fellow luiseach hold Sunshine culpable. He leaves her two choices: study her powers and become mature, or let the predators among her own kind destroy her.

In parallel, Sunshine’s platonic boyfriend back home, Nolan, continues researching to discover whatever knowledge will unlock Sunshine’s abilities. A strange new woman enters Nolan’s life: youthful but possessed of uncanny knowledge, Helena steers Nolan’s researches in directions she admits serve her own ends. Helena serves the two roles Campbell reserves for “Woman”: Goddess and Temptress. But her connection to Sunshine pushes Nolan into corners he cannot possibly escape.

Some of McKenzie’s storytelling techniques will seem familiar to veteran YA audiences. Sunshine, as our first-person narrator, feels compelled to describe her awkwardness. Apparently her hair goes wild, and she considers herself clumsy. Her adorkable self-figuration stands at odds with her great confidence, poise, and having multiple young men wholly devoted to her. Apparently a tendency to drop things makes her more approachable to her intended teenage readers.

Like most “urban fantasy” novelists, McKenzie makes the most of the collision between her heroine’s ancient heritage and modern setting. The terrible cell phone reception at quasi-Hogwarts looms large in this story. The campus provides fortress-like protection for Sunshine during her adolescent vulnerability, like Dagobah. So the villains must threaten those she loves to draw her out voluntarily. The only question remains: will she, like Luke Skywalker, fall for it?

Of course she will. Like the Buddha or Ulysses, Sunshine is living out a primordial journey, a literal expression of the metaphorical transition we must all make into adulthood. (That’s why I like science fiction and fantasy, because they can address vast themes without being yoked to “realism.”) We don’t read books like this to be surprised or derailed, but to witness something classic re-enacted for a living generation.

Neither McKenzie nor her publisher make any bones about this being a bridge volume. She doesn’t dither introducing new readers to events from Volume One; there’s a brief refresher, then she jumps in with both feet. This energy continues throughout the entire novel. The story ends in motion, promising something even bigger. And I’ll be there. McKenzie pulls readers along with courage, grace, and aplomb.

No comments:

Post a Comment