Book Review: Deerskin by Robin McKinley

January 30, 2005


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From the award-winning author of several novel-sized fantasies featuring strong, romantic heroines, comes this adaptation of an R-rated Perrault fairy tale that was originally called “Donkeyskin.”

Lissla Lissar is a princess whose beautiful, royal parents are the stuff of fairy tales, including the ones her own nurse tells her: how her mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms; how her grandfather sent her mother’s suitors far and wide to do impossible tasks to win her hand; and how her super-handsome father went to the ends of the earth to prove that he was her true love. But, as the people of the kingdom bask in the glory of their perfect king and queen, the young princess lives a life of neglect.

Then the fairy tale turns into a nightmare. The queen falls ill and makes a gruesome deathbed request…the king goes mad with grief…and though things start to look up for Lissar when a foreign prince sends her a fleethound puppy to comfort her in her time of loss, and Lissar gets new and better quarters and begins to come into her own as an adult member of the court…something is truly rotten in whatever this kingdom is called. It grows from a sense of uneasiness and foreboding, to a shocking climax of brutality and evil. With the result that a gravely wounded princess and her grievously wounded dog stagger out into the wilderness in the middle of the night.

Madness and despair close in, and death seems close at hand. But a (being-spirit? goddess?) called Moonwoman gives Lissar the gift of time. Time to heal and make a new beginning. She makes it in another kingdom–the kingdom of the prince who sent her the dog–where she goes to work in the kennels, nursing sick puppies and training majestic hunting dogs. Though she likes to dress in a deerskin dress & run around barefoot, people think she’s something special. A lady, at least…if not Moonwoman herself, with the power to find lost things and protect the innocent.

But when the prince falls in love with her, Lissar may not have the strength to return his love. Not with the scars she bears, and the self-loathing that results from them. Can she claim the new life, and love, that she deserves? Or will she run away from Moonwoman’s gift?

This is a very adult fantasy. By this I don’t mean it is sleazy or pornographic, but it is very direct & open about sexual themes, full of passions and dreads and darkness that may overwhelm immature readers, not to mention the truly strange and disturbing climax. Written with sensitivity, intelligence, and a wealth of lifelike detail–not to mention a sincere love of dogs–it is an unforgettable book for those who have the strength to experience it.