Eleven's Reviews > Deerskin

Deerskin by Robin McKinley
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's review
Jan 09, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: haveread-andyoushouldtoo, scifi-fantasy
Recommended for: fantasy lovers, people who like a good story, fairy tale readers
Read in January, 2009 , read count: 1

A fairy tale in only the technical term, Deerskin takes place in a nameless land within the "seven kingdoms", where a young princess is known for nothing but being the daughter of the best king and most beautiful queen ever. She grows up hearing the story of her mother's courting, the accomplishments of her father and other such things that have instantly become legend in their lifetimes. When the queen falls ill and dies, a few people turn their attention to the princess, now of age to marry, and realize that she will become the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, as her mother was before. This is brought to the attention of a crazed and grieving king, who is driven to the unthinkable. Together with her dog, Ash, Princess Lissar flees her castle with little to no memory of who she is, why she is running and what has happened to her.

Ok, WOW. Now, I have read a few of McKinley's novels, including The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, so I'm not unfamiliar with McKinley's solid yet visceral imagery. But there was something very, very remarkable about this book, something that I can't rightly explain, something you have to read for yourself.

In the beginning I was actually a little put off by the way it was written, in a very non-specific fairy tale type way, "once upon a time" and all that, where no one had a name. But it was only for about two chapters that it was like this. As soon as Lissar was acknowledged as a person by someone, and not just a thing to get underfoot, that she was given a name. This is done when a foreign prince hears of her mother's death and, instead of sending some lavish mourning gift to her father, sends a small, white puppy to Lissar.

For the first part of the book (during Lissar's "first life"), she struggles with her identity, finding herself uncomfortable with courtly life. There are a few moments within these two years that McKinley really strives to make the reader understand that Lissar's character is molded because of her circumstances, rather than in spite of them. She is a humble, shy, curious girl who would rather garden and play with her dog than spend money or order others around. It was her parents' neglect and her nursemaid's stories of her amazing parents that led to to believe she was no more important than a servant in her own castle. There is very little within her that really feels like a princess, and this is a very important aspect of her personality.

As soon as it stops reading like another fairy story (although her kingdom, and indeed any of the others, get named), the description becomes abundant, even excessive. This story has what I guess I would call flowery language, whereas my creative writing teacher would call it "dead wood". There is a bit of repetition, but I honestly got into that. It was the power of the emotion that was felt, the intensity of the things going on, that made it bear repeating. The restating of a bit of information in a different way made the scene more powerful, rather than taking away from it.

That having been said, I have to say this. I have never found myself actually horrified while reading before. There are plenty of times my heart has broken, I have cried, or felt very depressed because of what I was reading, but I have never felt absolutely, gut-wrenchingly horrified. There was a point where I felt slightly sick, reading what had happened to Lissar. That's the awe that this book inspires.

There are also a few messages of woman empowerment and the worship of beauty. Beauty, as you find out, was the ruin of both queen and princess of the kingdom. The queen loved her own face so well that when she fell ill, it wasn't the sickness that really killed her. It was her own vanity - she lost a bit of her beauty in being sick and didn't want to live anymore. Likewise, the princess growing into such beauty drove her father crazy and resulted in the act that would haunt her "new" life. It is actually in a new land, with an entirely different set of priorities, that Lissar finds comfort and her own identity.

This is a character driven fantasy dream story. The goal is not to create a concrete world but to engage yourself in Lissar's life, her struggles, and, eventually, her triumph. (Believe me, it comes, you have to stick with it... the first half of the book I wasn't sure I was going to be able to make it through, her life seemed so dismal.) And in this, McKinley has truly succeeded. This is a book that I won't be able to forget for a while.
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