The Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of a handsome king and his queen, a woman who is known as the most beautiful woman in the seven kingdoms. Vain, but lauded by the inhabitants of their kingdom, they spare little time for the young princess who grows up alone with only her old nursemaid, who tells her grand tales of her perfect parents, as a companion. But one day, the queen takes ill with a mysterious disease, which robs her of her beauty, and before she dies, she extracts a promise from her distraught husband that he will marry no one else unless they are as beautiful as she once was. Upon her death, the king falls into madness and depression, but in time, he recovers and hears how others praise Lissar as looking so much like her mother. Two years later, on Lissar's seventeenth birthday, the king throws a magnificent ball and later declares that he's found his new bride, none other than his own daughter. Shocked and horrified, Lissar tries to hide from her father, but he finds a way into her rooms and does the unthinkable. Emotionally and physically broken, and with only her beloved fleethound, Ash, as a companion, Lissar flees the castle, allowing Ash to lead the way. However, winter is upon them, and just as it begins to snow, they chance to find a tiny cabin in the mountains that provides what they need to survive. It's there that Lissar encounters the fabled Moonwoman who leads her on a long journey to healing and to once again finding hope, trust, and love.
Deerskin is a retelling of the centuries-old fairy tale by Charles Perrault titled Donkeyskin. It tells the story of the Princess Lissla Lissar, who, despite living in a grand castle, was raised in a rather solitary existence by her nursemaid and rarely participated at court. The nursemaid fed Lissar a steady diet of stories about how her parents met and the fabled great love they shared. Lissar also frequently heard about how her mother was known as the most beautiful woman in the seven kingdoms. But then her mother became ill with a mysterious disease that was rumored to have robbed her of her loveliness, and before her death, she made the unusual request that her husband, the king, not remarry anyone who was not her equal in beauty. Following her death, the king fell into depression and a form of madness, and two years later, when Lissar turned seventeen, the kingdom threw a ball for her birthday. During the festivities, the king announced that he'd found a new bride and it was none other than his own daughter. Horrified, Lissar locked herself in her tower room, but her father managed to break in anyway and brutally beat and raped her for her insolence. Afterward, feeling dead inside, Lissar fled the castle with no one but her beloved fleethound, Ash, a gift from the prince of a neighboring kingdom when her mother had died, as a companion. The pair spend the winter in a tiny cabin in the mountains, where Lissar begins her long road to healing.
The focus of the book is on Lissar, the ways in which she's been broken, and her journey back to a sense of self. Not only is she dealing with the physical and emotional effects of the assault, but she also deals with a sense of never quite measuring up to her impossibly beautiful mother. She deliberately tries to forget everything that happened, because to think of it sends her into a panic, and eventually she appears to suffer from a kind of traumatic amnesia. After several months at the cabin, she's visited by the mystical Moonwoman, who tells her that she's giving Lissar the gift of time, which I believe is a metaphor for the adage, "Time heals all wounds." Lissar awakens from this strange dream, dressed in a lovely white deerskin dress that never gets dirty, and Lissar's and Ash's appearances have changed. Together with Ash, and with the prompting of the Moonwoman's spirit, she finally ventures forth, back to civilization, ending up in the yellow city, a kingdom that is ruled by the parents of the prince who gave her Ash. There she meets Prince Ossin, who offers her the job of helping him care for a litter of orphaned Fleethound puppies, and a friendship - and later love - begins to blossom between them. But there are still holes in Lissar's memories, and when they finally do return, she once again flees, leaving their future in question.
Lissar is a strong, wonderful character who's emotional fortitude carries her through what was basically a lifetime of abuse and neglect. Long before being raped by her own father, she was generally ignored by her parents who spent more time nursing their own vanities and basking in the blind adulation of their people to care much about their only child. Lissar wasn't even allowed friends, growing up alone with no one but her old nursemaid for company until she received Ash. Then her beloved dog became her best friend. Despite all of this, Lissar never lost her innate sweetness and kindness. She always preferred a simpler life, choosing to live in a small tower room when she was given a massive, richly ornamented royal suite. She also trained with a local herbalist to learn about plants, so that she could tend the small garden outside her room. When she flees the castle following her father's betrayal, she initially does so in a mental and emotional haze, allowing Ash to show her the way. But once ensconced in her little cabin in the woods, she learns to do things she never thought possible, coming to rely entirely on herself. By the time she meets Prince Ossin, there's nothing left of the pampered princess she once was, and that never changes even after she falls in love with him.
As royalty goes, Ossin is a bit of an odd duck. He much prefers spending time with his numerous dogs than being in the throne room or attending to the trappings of his station. In fact, his whole family are quite kind and open-minded. They make themselves available every day, allowing all the people of their kingdom to petition them for any need they might have. They also allow commoners to attend their balls if they so choose. I found it refreshing that Ossin isn't depicted as the impossibly handsome prince, but instead is somewhat plain of face and a bit pudgy around the middle. Yet, he harbors a kind, compassionate heart that always sees Lissar for who she truly is. That alone makes him a beautiful soul even if the outer packaging isn't what one typically expects from a fairy-tale prince.
Overall, Deerskin is a very unique book, quite unlike anything I've ever read before. It certainly has that fairy-tale quality to it, both in the story itself and the story-telling style. The pace of the story is rather languid, yet didn't feel cumbersome or weighted down with unnecessary detail. Instead, the prose flows in a beautiful, poetic sort of way that was different but appealing. It's told in a more omniscient POV rather than deep character POV, which in other books hasn't worked well for me, but here I thought it fit nicely and was very well-done, adding to the fairy-tale feel. I related extremely well to the character of Lissar and her journey to wholeness and healing, while Ossin was a kind and admirable young man who was easy to fall for. I liked how Lissar goes from the opulence of her own kingdom to the more easy-going atmosphere of Ossin's kingdom, which shows that material things aren't what's important in life. In fact, the people of Lissar's former kingdom were quite frustrating in their blind willingness to overlook their king's horrific proposal to marry his own daughter, instead finding a way to blame Lissar, which is an all-too real phenomena in this otherwise fantastical tale. The final chapter depicting Lissar's confrontation with her father and eventual realization that Ossin loves her the way she is, brokenness and all, was utterly beautiful. Deerskin was quite simply an all-around lovely story that has earned a spot on my keeper shelf for its unique qualities, as well as its appealing characters and storyline. It was my first read by Robin McKinley but makes me look forward to checking out her other work.
Note: Some websites have this book listed as YA, possibly because of Lissar's age and the author having written Middle Grade and YA books. I personally think it's more adult in nature despite the fairy tale theme, and because of the subject matter involving incestuous rape - even though it's handled pretty delicately - I can only recommend it for mature teens of about sixteen and up who wouldn't be traumatized by it. Also, I believe the more advanced and nuanced style of writing might be lost on younger audiences.
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