I read Robin McKinley’s Deerskin the year it was published 1993. It enthralled me.
What I still remember after all these years from my first reading was how McKinley played with the child memories Lissla had of her parents. How perfect they were, and as the reader saw, how cold and remote – and narcissistic they were.
She saw them, remembered them, as if she were looking at a painting; they were too splendid to be real, and always they seemed at some little distance from her, from all onlookers.Deerskin, by Robin McKinley
The original tale of Donkeyskin, written by Charles Perrault in 1695 had the King coveting his daughter because she was the most beautiful woman in the kingdom (her mother, who held the honor prior had died).
So when McKinley took on the subject of incest and rape, after writing books that were for a youth market, it rather rocked the writing and reading community even while people fell in love with it.
The family dysfunction is generational: the Queen’s own father seems to have a bit of coveting his daughter – and the book seems to imply this is the Queen’s fault because of her own attraction.
…for such a joy was the daily presence of your lovely mother that her father was not eager to part with her…Deerskin by Robin McKinley
After the Queen’s marriage, her father dies supposedly of a broken heart from losing her. This foreshadows the King’s own madness, a result of his wife’s death, which pushes him into lusting after his own daughter.
Princess Lissla Lissar starts to blossom into a maiden almost as lovely as the Queen, and it brings the attention of the king upon her. The unnatural attraction is noticeable to Lissla but other’s at the court seem oblivious.
The blankness there parted for a moment, and she saw – she did not know what she saw, but it made her cold all over, suddenly, so cold that the sweat of terror broke out on her body.Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Her attempt to evade her father’s desire is futile and after a brutal rape, she finally escapes.
This completes the first section of the book. For me the book has three clear sections: her time as a child at her Father’s court; the time in the winter cabin, suffering and trying to heal; and her work in the kennels at the sixth king’s court.
Escaping but close to dying, she finds a deserted cabin. Using it as a haven, she spends the winter barely surviving. It is only with the intervention of the Moon Goddess is Lissla saved. After a natural abortion due to her ill health, she struggles to heal until the Moon Goddess transforms her with a disguise.
Fred from her former self, Lissla finds herself at a neighboring kingdom where she tends the royal prince’s dogs. However, her past finds her and the story culminates in a stunning confrontation between her and her father in front of the entire court.
In Deerskin you can see how McKinley is playing with the idea of repetition, striving for the sing-song lyrical tone that Patricia McKillip brings to her stories so effortlessly (it seems – I’m sure it takes a lot of hard work!).
I am not sure McKinley achieves the fineness that she wants. Some of the blocks of paragraphs run on too long, the theme too oft repeated. The horror that is really at the heart of Deerskin, is brought only to the fore, only to be evaded in a sideways turn of subject.
This book is really about one woman’s journey and with that focus, McKinley does little service to the love interest Prince Ossin. This is one of her major problems with her stories – the male heroes are simple cardboard cutouts while the heroines are fire.
Ossin has no pain to make him stand out; nothing that makes us wonder what is his faults? What makes him worthy of a woman who has gone through so much pain? Is it simply that he loves her that he deserves her? That he is gentle?
I’ve read a lot of McKinley over the years and the weakness of her male heroes has always been a gripe of mine.
Even so, the rousing end to Deerskin after all the pain Lissla has suffered makes a very satisfying read.