Next up: “Deerskin” by Robin McKinley
A retelling of the fairy tale “Donkeyskin”.
So… the fairy tale base for this is a pretty dark and creepy one. This book doesn’t shy from that, though it obviously has altered and enhanced the story otherwise.
Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful queen and the most handsome king in the land. When she is younger, her mother falls ill with a wasting sickness. Her death drives the king nearly mad with grief. Lissar is mostly forgotten, having been raised by nannies anyway, and goes about her life quietly and without any particular arrogance despite being a princess. However, as she ages, she grows more and more beautiful. As a teenager, she becomes even more beautiful than the late queen, and her father becomes obsessed with her.
After her father attacks her and rapes her, Lissar flees her kingdom along with her loyal hound, Ash. They find a cottage in the mountains in which to hide, but Lissar, impregnated by her father, miscarries and nearly dies. The moon goddess, however, intervenes, saving Lissar’s life. To protect them from future harm, she also changes Lissar and Ash. The unrecognizable and slightly magical Lissar travels to a neighboring kingdom, and by virtue of Ash’s company, finds herself a job tending the royal kennels. The prince of the land’s favorite bitch had died, orphaning a litter of puppies, and Lissar is set to nurse them back to health and help raise them. But everything she is running away from has not vanished, and her past, the moon goddess’s gifts, and her new friendship with Prince Ossin all combine for a tense conflict.
While it doesn’t contain a graphic depiction of rape, it is very clear what happens to Lissar. For this reason, this book isn’t for everyone.
The book has McKinley’s unique storytelling tone, heavy on narrative rather than dialogue. I think it’s a very strong story, a wonderful retelling, for all the initial darkness. Lissar is a quiet hero, as most of McKinley’s protagonists are. But she is a hero, and strong. Forgotten by her parents until she draws her father’s attention in the worst way, abused and nearly killed by that attention, living outside of society, Lissar still manages to be compassionate and hopeful. She is humble royalty, never taking her high status as indication that she is fundamentally above other people. I found her to be an empathetic main character; I felt for her and with her.
I absolutely love ‘gentle’ love stories. Not anything dramatic or full of florid, overwrought declarations of love and devotion. I love friends-to-lovers stories, and “Deerskin” is that. The romance is very quiet, and doesn’t end in a big dramatic demonstration of how they ‘live happily ever after’. It ends with hope. I suppose it can annoy people, not getting to really see the end of Lissar’s love story, but because it does end on a sweet, hopeful note, I found it to be satisfying. I was happy to imagine for them a happy life, without being told what a ‘happy life’ should look like.
I think I said this for “Chalice”, which I reviewed before this, but to get the most out of McKinley’s writing, you have to be an active reader. You can’t just skim and fly through it. You have to sit down and immerse yourself in the world, the characters. In the words of Rafiki: “Look closer.” It’s worth it.
Discussion of rape, incest, miscarriage. And, briefly, animal abuse.