Monday, August 3, 2009

Book review: Deerskin by Robin McKinley

I’ve read one or two of Robin McKinley’s Young Adult books before; Deerskin is not like those books. Yes, the sure-footed story-telling is there, and the characters that leap off the page, and the magic and mystery. But Deerskin, while still a fantasy, is indeed a fairy tale for adults (as one of the book jacket quotes gushes) – it is, in part, nightmarish, unthinkable, the grimmest fairy tale imaginable.

All as she was growing up, the Princess Lissar was ignored, overshadowed by her beautiful, generous, overwhelming parents – the queen the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and the king clever and brave and handsome enough to win her hand. When the queen died, the king went mad with grief for she was his life, and while she was living, they only had eyes for each other. The princess grew up quietly, unnoticed except by her beloved pet dog, a greyhound-esque hound named “Ash,” a gift from a neighboring kingdom’s prince as slight consolation and comfort at her mother’s death.

At the princess’s seventeenth birthday, she got a coming-out party, and the court was amazed to discover that this princess, who had been for so long completely eclipsed by her mother’s beauty, was actually the very image of her mother. The nightmare did not truly begin, however, until the king realized the same thing.

Lissar and her devoted dog fled the castle and the unspeakable horror (which McKinley does, in fact, speak of in awful, heart-rending detail) contained within it. Through strength of will, resilience of body and not a little magic, she and Ash embarked upon a journey that brought them wonder and danger, loyalty and betrayal, healing and home. The brutalized princess had lost her memory, repressing not just recent events but all prior history, and eventually found her way to a far off kingdom where she got work in the prince’s dog kennels. I know I’m being very vague with the plot, but this is an excellent story and it deserves to be read, not spoiled here.

McKinley makes a note at the beginning of the book which says:

There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault’s fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin began.
All the old, unDisneyfied fairy tales are violent, often horrifically so: two out of every three princes dying during impossible quests, evil stepsisters hacking off bits of their feet to squeeze into party shoes, princesses dancing all night until their feet bleed. Donkeyskin and Deerskin go much further than any of those. This modern fantasy novel is indeed a fairy tale, following the traditions and tropes, but it is brutal and disturbing, no less so because McKinley writes so well.

But it is also full of strength and love – and dogs. Lots of dogs, actually – McKinley is obviously a dog person. Lissar regains much of her strength in the royal kennel, surrounded by happy dogs and puppies. For every act of wrath there is one of rebirth. I read a lot of fantasy novels but rarely does one stay with me for very long after I’ve closed the cover. Robin McKinley’s striking Deerskin is one that has.


  1. Agreed. I don't remember how old I was when I read this book, but it was ten years ago at least, and I still remember it.

  2. I liked your review a lot. I think you're right about this book being a modern fantasy. It's such a psychological novel. McKinley acknowledges that healing is something that really takes time, and denial and repression are a healthy part of it for a while. The book really gives you the sense that there are no quick fixes. Something needs to be said for Ossin too. He pursues Lissar, but gives her space to heal.