Review: “Deerskin,” Robin McKinley

Pros: Wow. Made me cry buckets
Cons: Trigger warning; very dark material
Rating: 5 out of 5

Before surgery I picked up about 20 books that I could be fairly certain I’d love, to read in the weeks following. One was Robin McKinley’s Deerskin. It sounded interesting, and I had a vague half-memory of having loved one of her other books perhaps some 25 years ago. I couldn’t have imagined, however, just what a mark this book would leave on me.

 

Princess Lissar doesn’t have her dead mother’s regal presence, but she has started to inherit some of her legendary beauty. Unfortunately this brings her to the attention of her distant and uncaring father, who determines to marry her. In fleeing his madness she makes her way to a small, backwater neighboring kingdom, where she finds a job caring for Prince Ossin’s prized puppies. She’s been touched by magic, and the locals come to believe that she’s the Moonwoman of legend. She cannot, however, outrun her memories forever.

 

First, a trigger warning for rape. This is an incredibly dark tale, and it isn’t for everyone. It contains a stunning exploration of dissociation, repressed memories and flashbacks that flattened me. McKinley’s voice wanders and meanders with a lyrical loveliness; it’s rescued from being potentially slow by a magnetic, engrossing, terrifying plot. I’m still reeling from reading it.

The characterization is striking. Side characters come to life, and the major characters contain great depth. I particularly like the friendship that develops between Ossin and Lissar, which isn’t at all a stereotypical fantasy relationship. The ties between Lissar and her dogs likewise entranced me, despite the fact that I’m not a dog person.

The magic present in the tale has a fierce, mystical touch to it. It’s an occasional thing–no spells, sorcerers or mystics–but powerful when it shows its face. The Moonwoman has chosen to shine her light on Lissar, and her loving touch informs everything.

I am not ashamed to say that I shed more than a tear or two as I approached the climax of Deerskin. It enthralled me as it swept toward its powerful conclusion. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone, as long as they’re ready for the subject matter.

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