Apr 12, 2008

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

Deerskin is a more or less loosely based on Perraul’t fairy tale "Donkeyskin". The fairy tales’ troubling subject matter — incest — makes it more obscure and less often anthologized than most of Perrault’s fairy tales.

In “Donkeyskin”, as in Deerskin, a king, driven half to madness with grief by the death of his beautiful wife, decides to marry his own daughter, as she is the only woman whose beauty matches that of the deceased queen. The girl is of course horrified, and she flees her father’s kingdom. Robin McKinley takes this premise even further, but I’ll let you read the book to discover just how far.

In this novel, the heroine is named Lissar, and she is always accompanied by her faithful dog Ash. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that the novel more or less follows the fairy tale until princess Lissar escapes from her father, and from then on it takes a direction of its own.

I have slightly mixed feelings about Deerskin. Overall I really enjoyed it, but there were a few things I had problems with. It’s hard to talk about them without spoilers, though, so once again I’ll have to apologize for being vague. The first thing is quite concrete, actually. I found the pace of the book a bit odd. The first hundred pages or so fly by. The following fifty feel more like two hundred. Then after that it picks up again. The bit that drags is a bit in which Lissar is completely isolated, so nothing much is happening except what she is thinking, or rather, trying not to think. After a while, being constantly inside her head becomes a little claustrophobic. I guess that was part of what Robin Mckinley was trying to get across, but still.

The second thing was that Lissar was given “the gift of time”, and I apologize again for not being able to explain what exactly this means. But I can say this: a story about a young girl rebuilding (or rather, building from scratch) her life after a crushing experience is one that is sure to appeal to me. But I think it would have been an even better story if Lissar had not been able to avoid dealing with what happened to her for some time. Because in reality this is a luxury that most girl in her situation won’t have. And it’s not that I think that an author has any obligation to remain faithful to reality, of course. But for me the story would have been more interesting if in that regard she had.

Now on to the good things. First of all: puppies! An abundance of puppies! Animal lovers will be thrilled with all the scenes that involve puppies playing, puppies sleeping in a heap, puppies running around, puppies being trained. Secondly, Lissar is a great protagonist. She’s strong and determined, she knows what she wants, and she can take care of herself. Another thing that grabbed me right away was how realistic relationships are portrayed in this book. And this includes everything: from the ties between people and animals to words exchanged with a stranger, to friendship, and to the beginnings of love. Also, the writing is very good – both gripping and dream-like.

But what I loved the most about this novel was the ending. No magical solutions are found. There’s no “happily ever after” – there’s rather a “let’s try our best to be happy even though some wounds are very hard to heal”. Lissar does her best to rebuild her life. She doesn’t promise she will succeed. She doesn’t forget what she went through. But she promises to try.

Deerskin reminded me of Zel in some ways. Both deal with the consequences of abuse, albeit of different kinds. Both use fairy tales to explore issues that are often left unexplored. And both are dark and uncomfortable books – but I mean this in a good way.

Other Blog Reviews:
Andrea's Book Nook
Medieval Bookworm


  1. Oh Nymeth, you're single-handedly burying me in my own wish list! I've never even heard of Donkeyskin, let alone read it. But I will be searching it out, along with this book.
    I'm about to read my first Robin McKinley (Beauty...another book I got because of you!). I just have to finish Enna Burning first.
    By the way, you've been getting so much reading done...are you sure you're remembering to eat? :)

  2. I have this one sitting on my tbr pile, perhaps I should move it closer to the top. Excellent review.

  3. I've got to read some more Robin McKinley!

  4. I am really looking forward to reading Beauty and if I like it I will definitely be getting this when I am allowed to buy books again!

  5. I do want to read McKinley sometime, but this doesn't sound like one I necessarily need to pick up, at least not until I've read some of her other stuff. Sounds a bit creepy and not necessarily in a good way.

  6. I do love puppies and realistic endings, but pacing issues drive me nuts! There's nothing I hate more than flying through a book and then just getting stuck and feeling like you have to drag your way through it. That's when I normally just give up or it takes me days and days to read something. But despite that, this still sounds really good! I haven't heard of the tale that this is based on either.

  7. Another great review, Nymeth! I am not at all familiar with this particular tale, but you definitely have me curious. Even with the flaws, Robin McKinley's version sounds worth reading.

  8. Deerskin is the one McKinley novel that I didn't really love. I was quite young when I read it, and the father issue disturbed me alot at the time. Maybe a re-read is in order, just to see if I'd like it now that I'm older. I do remember liking her pets though. Thanks for the review.

  9. well, I do love puppies, and the cover art is very nice ...but... this doesn't sound like something I'd enjoy all that much.. I like when a review really tells me "yes or no" lol

  10. Debi: lol! Worry not, I haven't been skipping any meals :P I can't wait to see how you like Beauty! And Enna Burning, of course.

    Cath: Thanks. I'm glad you liked my review :)

    Robin: Yes you do :P

    Rhinoa: I hope you enjoy them both!

    Carl: The premise certainly is creepy, but I really liked how Robin Mckinley handled it - what this is is a novel about healing, about surviving a crushing experience that is unfortunately not unheard of in the real world (and I don't mean fathers wanting to marry their daughters, but something else she does with it that I can't explain without spoilers). But even regardless of the subject matter, I think Beauty would be a better introduction to Mckinley than this one.

    Chris: Yes, pacing issues can be quite maddening. Fortunately in this case the part that dragged wasn't long enough to make me want to cast the book aside. Still, I wish the pace had been more even...some parts were more detailed than they needed to be.

    Literary Feline: I did think it was very much worth reading. It's not surprising that Donkeyskin is not that well known...it's quite a disturbing fairy tale.

    Katie: I think I'd have felt the same way as you at a younger age. This is definitely not one for younger readers...it's troubling enough as it is for adults.

    Deslily: I'm glad you found my review helpful!

  11. Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors and one of my least favorite authors. I've read ones by her I've really really loved and then ones that are just so-so. Thanks for the review, it sounds like this might be one of ones I would only find so-so. Even if there are interesting parts and puppies in it!

  12. Interesting book but I know how it is with the character thinking parts dragging on and on. Stop thinking already and do something. Overall it sounds good and thanks for your review!

  13. I love the fact that even when you didn't completely enjoy a book, you always find something good to highlight.

  14. Kim: I have heard before that she is hit or miss. So far I've had a hit and a more-hit-than-miss. I hope my luck continues!

    Jamie: In this case the heroine had a good excuse to not do something, but even so it got to be a bit too much after some time. But yes, overall it was good.

    Valentina: Thank you :) It wasn't hard with this book, because the good does outweigh the bad.

  15. Another book to my wishlist!! Thanks for the review, Nymeth. :)

  16. Hmm, sounds like an intriguing book! I haven't read a McKinley work yet. I read Donkeyskin from the link and pretty much enjoyed it.

  17. Melody, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

    Lightheaded: Like I was telling others I think Beauty is a better one to start with, but this one's good too. I'm glad you enjoyed the fairy tale!

  18. There are other McKinley books I like better, but Deerskin still made it into my personal library. I found certain um, scenes in the beginning very disturbing. But reading about how the protagonist overcame that terrible experience really kept my attention. And I loved the puppies!

  19. Oh dear, I already have three McKinley books to read. Looks like I'll be adding a fourth. This one looks so interesting.


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