Book Review: Deerskin

by Robin McKinley
386 pages
Published 2014

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

You know, sometimes you just need some escapist fantasy. McKinley’s lyrical prose was just the ticket for me last night. There were a few times where I thought “I’d like to know what happens next, quit with the digression already” but then I got caught up in the digression itself! I’ve read several of McKinley’s books – The Hero and the Crown, Pegasus, a few others. She is a master of her craft, weaving magical tales that make you really SEE the world of the book.

Lissar/Deerskin survives some intense trauma in the beginning of this tale – it was hard to read, but McKinley hit the middle ground of being just graphic enough to really impress the horror of the assault on you, without being overly graphic. I think it could definitely be triggering, though, so be warned. Lissar survives, and escapes, and spends time healing before going among people again and learning to heal emotionally as well as physically.

The book is predictable – I knew where she was going and who she’d fall in love with from the moment she left home – but no less absorbing for that. I did like that for once, an author dealt with trauma recovery in a realistic manner, instead of just “oh well she loves him so the trauma won’t bother her anymore!” because PTSD doesn’t work that way.

Deerskin is another enchanting tale from McKinley, with parts that are genuinely hard to read. I wish the description had been more blatant that when Lissar is fleeing “her father’s lust” they really meant his assault, not just his desire.

From the cover of Deerskin

Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.

But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”

The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!

On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.

Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.

Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.

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