Welcome, everyone, to a brand new weekly Smugglerific feature: Old School Wednesdays! We came up with the idea towards the end of last year, when both of us were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of new and shiny (and often over-hyped) books. And what better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Inspired by our defunct From the Dungeons feature (owing a dash of inspiration from Angieville’s Retro Fridays), we decided to create a new feature for 2013. On Old School Wednesdays, we take a break from the new and pay homage to the old by reviewing books that are at least 5 years old.
Today, it’s Thea’s turn to take over with a review of Deerskin!
Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Publication date: 1993
Paperback: 330 pages
As Princess Lissla Lissar reaches womanhood, it is clear to all the kingdom that in her beauty she is the image of her dead mother, the queen. But this likeness forces her to flee from her father’s lust and madness; and in the pain and horror of that flight she forgets who she is and what it is she flees from: forgets almost everything but the love and loyalty of her dog, Ash, who accompanies her. But a chance encounter on the road leads to a job in another king’s kennels, where the prince finds himself falling in love with the new kennel maid . . . and one day he tells her of a princess named Lissla Lissar, who had a dog named Ash.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print Book
Why did I read this book: Recently, I read and reviewed Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, a compilation of the Grimm Brothers’ most popular stories (that collection is amazing, by the way). One of the most resonant stories was called “Thousandfurs” – a German fairy tale about a girl who escapes her father’s lust – and many commenters recommended that I check out Deerskin for a novel-length retelling of that fairy tale. I immediately ordered my copy, and finally am getting a chance to read it!
Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.
Princess Lissla Lissar is the daughter of a heroic and handsome king, who won the hand of the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms. Every night, Lissar listens to her nursemaid spin the same tale – the story of her father, winning her mother’s hand over the other six Kings by completing an impossible, superhuman task. Every day and every night, Lissar hears the story of her mother’s incredible beauty and her father’s heroic deeds, and how much everyone in the kingdom loves their royal leaders. On the rare occasions that Lissar gets to see her parents, or even interact with other children, she is always in the background, neglected and forgotten in the face of the stunning beauty and splendor of her parents.
But one day, the beautiful queen is not quite as beautiful as she once was, and loses her will to live. Before she dies, she commissions a great and terrible painting of her unparalleled beauty, and with her dying breath she makes her husband promise that he will only marry again if his bride is as beautiful as she. Racked by his grief, the King agrees, driven mad by his grief. As the kingdom mourns, Princess Lissar withdraws further away from the prying eyes and games of the court – her only true friend is her beloved hound, Ash, and together she and Ash spend the next quiet years in a secluded part of the castle, away from the eyes of Lissar’s father.
When Lissar turns seventeen, however, everything changes as her father’s feverish gaze seizes on Lissar’s blooming beauty and her resemblance to her mother. Following a nightmarish birthday ball, the King declares that he will marry Princess Lissla Lissar in three days. Horrified and alone, Lissar tries to lock herself away from her father, but to no avail – he breaks down her doors, beats and rapes his daughter in the night. Battered, terrified, but with a stubborn will to live, Lissar stumbles away from the palace with only the company of her loyal dog Ash, and makes her way through the cold, cruel woods.
After a long, cold winter, Lissar is able to heal, though she blocks out all memory of her past. When the weather warms, she leaves her isolated home in the woods for a new kingdom and earns a job in the palace kennels. Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself – but she will be forced to confront her past once and for all, with a future of hope and happiness waiting for her.
Deerskin is not an easy book to read. Incredibly disturbing, painful, and triggering, this is NOT a book for everyone. That said, as horrific and raw as this book is, Deerskin is also a resonant, powerful, and empowering read.
From a writing perspective, Robin McKinley tends towards the verbose and the ornate – sometimes this works for her books, and sometimes (in my opinion) it does not. I am happy to say that Deerskin is one of the successful endeavors, with its beautiful, languid prose, vivid images and descriptions. McKinley is retelling a fairy tale, after all, and Deerskin is a decidedly dreamlike book with heavy folklore overtones. As Philip Pullman discusses in his version of the story “Thousandfurs” (and in general for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm), the magic of a fable lies in its telling, and Deerskin excels in this regard with its lush turns of phrase. Even when describing something as simple as cleaning a hut in the middle of winter, or the techniques to feed ailing puppies (both events that occur in this text, mind you), McKinley makes the story effortlessly interesting and surprisingly ethereal.
But beyond the setting, the telling, and the world, Deerskin is really a book that comes down to a horrific story, and a young woman’s stubborn will to live. Heroine Lissar, who becomes Deerskin and Moonwoman, is the sole figure at the heart of this book, and on whose shoulders the tale’s success or failure rests. And let me say this once with feeling: Lissar is an amazing, gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring heroine. I loved her character, I cried for her character, I rooted wholeheartedly for her character. Lissar’s growing dread defines the first part of this book, as she looks into her father’s eyes for the first time and sees something she cannot name, but something that frightens her deeply. Like a nightmare, the next years of her young life unfold with her always pulling away from her father’s notice, until it comes to a crashing, horrific climax following her seventeenth birthday. This, for me, was an incredibly challenging read – I had to keep putting the book down because it was so disturbing – but Robin McKinley does a phenomenal job of building this terror and claustrophobia, and then segueing the book from one of fear to one of hope. Because as dark and horrific as the first part of the story is, as Lissar flees her old life and begins to heal and gradually comes to confront her past, it’s an amazing and empowering arc. And, it has a happy ending – one where Lissar is able to confront and defeat the monster of her past, and have a future of happiness and life.
I could wax on about Lissar and Ash (the most touching, wonderful relationship between a woman and her closest animal companion that I have read probably…ever), about the folkloric elements with the Moonwoman that helps Lissar find her way, about the slow simmering relationship between Lissar and Prince Ossin…but perhaps those are all things that are best discovered by the reader. Suffice it to say, I loved all of these different threads and Robin McKinley’s skill at weaving them together into a complete story.
I don’t know if I’ll read Deerskin again in the near future – most likely not. But I feel stronger and smarter and alive for reading it, and I absolutely recommend it.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read a short excerpt from Deerskin online via Amazon’s “Look Inside” function HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Buy the Book:
No ebook available.