From Donkeyskin to Deerskin / Deerskin (A book review)

8087My review of Deerskin by Robin McKinley from my blog with Hel at OhSoCleverReads:
I would recommend this book to practically everyone.  
BUT, because I would recommend it, that’s part of my problem with it. (Not trying to sound like a hipster here, but) Deerskin didn’t hit me very personally, and so that’s why I’d be willing to share it with others.
If I had to give this book a grade, it would be a B+. I want to give it an A-, but I think that maybe if it weren’t based off of a fairy tale (someone else’s story) I would be more inclined to give it a higher grade.
Now, to break it down: The Author’s Note tells you what you need to know before reading. I looked up Donkeyskin (which I had never heard of before until this book) on Wikipedia before starting. I still don’t feel like I know enough about Donkeyskin to properly compare it to Deerskin, but I’m excited to find out more (I’ll be keeping my eyes open for this story from now on. Or, if you know more about it, feel free to comment on this post and educate me, son!).
In a time where fairy tales are taking over our mainstream (think of the new Beauty and the Beast and Once Upon a Time TV shows), it’s nice to see a book written that doesn’t focus on an over-done fairy tale.
Now, the book is split into three parts, so I’ll go over each one:
Part one: Now, this book was copyrighted in 1993, so I let a lot of today’s clichés slide. From the onset, you know this is an “adult” book. It’s not your child’s fairy tale. Lissar is the main character. She’s a princess. Lissar’s parents’ relationship made me want to throw up, because they (the king and queen) were so obsessed with each other. They are pure manifestations of vanity, as far as I can tell. As the Queen lay dying, she has a portrait painted of her for the king to always remember her by. The part about the painter goes on and on and on. But every time you get frustrated, Robin McKinley draws you back in with a new concept of her world to read about. Every side character is treated fairly. Even the painter has a personality that adds to the imagery. This whole story is imagery. There is hardly any dialogue (which usually would upset me). Sometimes you even forget about Lissar because of the fanciful world before you – just as her parents and her kingdom did. The kingdom described is so beautiful – a representation of sins, perhaps. The kingdom is so fragile that when the queen dies, it never recovers – because beauty is shallow.
Much of the writing style reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s – but more delicate and feminine. I certainly liked this story more than most of Ursula’s stories (no offense, gurl, you a ground-breaker).
As I said before, Lissar (though our protagonist) is overlooked through most of part one – until she is given a dog from a prince in another land. The puppy’s name is Ash and Lissar starts to have feelings and take on purpose. Even her ‘friends’ have to use the dog to interact with Lissar.
Now, at this point, the “fairy tale” struck me as odd because in most fairy tales the father is the good guy and the mother (or step-mother) is normally evil. But it is clear that while Lissar’s mother most represented vanity, her father represented lust. When he announces he will marry his own daughter, the kingdom blames Lissar – not the mad king for this horrific statement. This is much like in our own culture when a girl is raped and someone says “what was she wearing?” People pin the blame on the female who could have “avoided” such a terrible situation.
When Ash threatens the king in order to protect Lissar, the king declares Ash will have to die. This was when I started to find things melodramatic. When the king finally rapes Lissar (as this was obviously going to happen – the buildup was obvious), I almost lost interest in the book. This part felt like it was out of character for the king – especially since Lissar is hurt so badly afterwards. Yes, I know Ash attacks him at one point and this makes him angrier but… I’m not even sure he would bother to rape her. Yes, he was obsessed with her, but the rape scene seemed weak and only served the purpose of creating a reason for Lissar to run away. He could have merely tried to rape her but Lissar could have gotten away. The fact the king wanted to marry her would have been reason enough to run away. However, maybe this has something to do with the Donkeyskin fairy tale that I just don’t know about.
Part two: When the king hurt Ash to get to Lissar, I thought Ash was dead. For sure. But she’s not. (Robin does this a lot with the animals in this story – you think something bad is going to happen to them, but it never really does).
However, where part one was weak, it gets better. Way better. Of course, you have to suffer the after effects of the rape (it is very drawn out). Lissar finds a vacant cabin and lives there for a time. They hunt, but not with bows and arrows. Ash attacks vermin and Lissar kills things with stones. I really liked this point about the hunting. Arrows are so cliché (thanks to The Hunger Games and Legolas) – and her hunting technique made Lissar seem so much more animalistic herself.
Magical elements like dragons are gently tossed into the story to remind you this is a fairy tale. Some scenes in part 2 I really felt like skimming, but the plot was starting to develop so I kept at it.  
Lissar meets Lilac – a girl who talks a lot and works with horses (even though she’s the daughter of someone rich-ish and doesn’t need to work or something like that).
Lissar, in this part, finally calls herself Deerskin. At this point we’re supposed to figure out that she’s suppressed her memory of her former self, but that point is not as obvious as I would have liked – maybe because it was based on the foundation of the rape scene (which I thought was weak).
She makes her way to the yellow city – the kingdom of the prince who gave her Ash (though she does not remember this). And now she has white hair and has gone through a (long story short) physical and spiritual transformation. The prince, Ossin, gives her a job taking care of puppies whose mother died the night before.
Now, Ossin (obviously) becomes the love interest. It is a love story done gently and I felt it made up for other parts that lacked strength in the beginning (like the rape scene). The villagers start to call her Moonwoman – after a folk legend they have.
The fairy tale/story becomes very meta when it talks about other fairy tales and such – which I liked.
When the prince takes Lissar in the portrait room and shows her the portrait of herself (that he had been sent), he is still too stupid (and so is she) to put things together. Ash is in the portrait also, and he even remembers what he named Ash. Granted, I can forgive it because Lissar looks so different (she didn’t always have white hair) and I also think that Ash’s coat grew curly at one point, which none of his other dogs had done.
When Ossin asks her to (eventually) marry him, she refuses. This part seemed silly to me and drew the story out for too long. She runs away with her dogs back to the cabin. At one point Ash gets hurt when the dogs try to take down a…I’m not even sure what it was, but it had horns. You think that Ash is going to die this time, but she never does. In fact (spoilers) no one ever dies. This is part of my beef with the story. It was too happy-ever-after.
Part three: Robin McKinley tries to give the story a twist when Lissar makes her way back to civilization and finds out there is a wedding going on. She thinks it is Ossin’s wedding (but even I knew it wasn’t – it just didn’t feel right). It’s her father about to marry Ossin’s sister. This seems out of character for himself also. He was so obsessed with Lissar that he was willing to marry her, but now he’s willing to betray his old wife’s wishes entirely (that he not marry anyone else unless she’s as beautiful as she was). Granted, yes, he does need an heir now, because everyone thinks Lissar is dead. But I feel like this point could have been drawn out more and the rape after-math scenes could have been cut from the story. The ending was wrapped up too quickly – Lissar exposes her father and she agrees to stay with Ossin (for as long as she feels like it). End of story.
Some final thoughts/points:
I really liked how this fairy tale broke binaries. Lissar didn’t need Ossin. They simply wanted each other. He did not complete her. The climax describes Lissar as both black and white – she needed no Yin to her Yang (or whatever).* It’s a very feminist piece of literature.
I did not like how – sometimes – the prince and Lissar thought/talked about breeding puppies. Yes, their dogs are good dogs with good personalities, but a lot of it is training too. I think this could give dumber readers the idea that breeding is best. Mutts for the win!!! (However, I really loved Ash. I love big dogs. And the way Robin describes Ash makes her the main character, really, in my opinion. Robin captures dogs so splendidly – it made me miss my own childhood dog so much that I found myself crying).
*This is a Taoist twist, in my opinion. This point made Robin’s themes seem much like LeGuins’s – as well as the oral tradition concepts woven into the story (such as when Lissar names the puppies and the names are, to her, a charm to help them live – live long enough to claim their names). These points and more reminded me extremely of Ursula K. LeGuin – but I liked how Robin was not as didactic as Ursula can be on these ideas. Though, Ursula was the first to incorporate them into sf.

 Read the entire review (+Hel’s review) at OhSoCleverReads


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