8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Old School Wednesdays: Deerskin by Robin McKinley

Welcome, everyone, to a brand new weekly Smugglerific feature: Old School Wednesdays! We came up with the idea towards the end of last year, when both of us were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of new and shiny (and often over-hyped) books. And what better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Inspired by our defunct From the Dungeons feature (owing a dash of inspiration from Angieville’s Retro Fridays), we decided to create a new feature for 2013. On Old School Wednesdays, we take a break from the new and pay homage to the old by reviewing books that are at least 5 years old.

Old School Wednesdays Final

Today, it’s Thea’s turn to take over with a review of Deerskin!

DeerskinTitle: Deeskin

Author: Robin McKinley

Genre: Fantasy, Historical

Publisher: Ace
Publication date: 1993
Paperback: 330 pages

As Princess Lissla Lissar reaches womanhood, it is clear to all the kingdom that in her beauty she is the image of her dead mother, the queen. But this likeness forces her to flee from her father’s lust and madness; and in the pain and horror of that flight she forgets who she is and what it is she flees from: forgets almost everything but the love and loyalty of her dog, Ash, who accompanies her. But a chance encounter on the road leads to a job in another king’s kennels, where the prince finds himself falling in love with the new kennel maid . . . and one day he tells her of a princess named Lissla Lissar, who had a dog named Ash.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print Book

Why did I read this book: Recently, I read and reviewed Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, a compilation of the Grimm Brothers’ most popular stories (that collection is amazing, by the way). One of the most resonant stories was called “Thousandfurs” – a German fairy tale about a girl who escapes her father’s lust – and many commenters recommended that I check out Deerskin for a novel-length retelling of that fairy tale. I immediately ordered my copy, and finally am getting a chance to read it!

Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.


Princess Lissla Lissar is the daughter of a heroic and handsome king, who won the hand of the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms. Every night, Lissar listens to her nursemaid spin the same tale – the story of her father, winning her mother’s hand over the other six Kings by completing an impossible, superhuman task. Every day and every night, Lissar hears the story of her mother’s incredible beauty and her father’s heroic deeds, and how much everyone in the kingdom loves their royal leaders. On the rare occasions that Lissar gets to see her parents, or even interact with other children, she is always in the background, neglected and forgotten in the face of the stunning beauty and splendor of her parents.

But one day, the beautiful queen is not quite as beautiful as she once was, and loses her will to live. Before she dies, she commissions a great and terrible painting of her unparalleled beauty, and with her dying breath she makes her husband promise that he will only marry again if his bride is as beautiful as she. Racked by his grief, the King agrees, driven mad by his grief. As the kingdom mourns, Princess Lissar withdraws further away from the prying eyes and games of the court – her only true friend is her beloved hound, Ash, and together she and Ash spend the next quiet years in a secluded part of the castle, away from the eyes of Lissar’s father.

When Lissar turns seventeen, however, everything changes as her father’s feverish gaze seizes on Lissar’s blooming beauty and her resemblance to her mother. Following a nightmarish birthday ball, the King declares that he will marry Princess Lissla Lissar in three days. Horrified and alone, Lissar tries to lock herself away from her father, but to no avail – he breaks down her doors, beats and rapes his daughter in the night. Battered, terrified, but with a stubborn will to live, Lissar stumbles away from the palace with only the company of her loyal dog Ash, and makes her way through the cold, cruel woods.

After a long, cold winter, Lissar is able to heal, though she blocks out all memory of her past. When the weather warms, she leaves her isolated home in the woods for a new kingdom and earns a job in the palace kennels. Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself – but she will be forced to confront her past once and for all, with a future of hope and happiness waiting for her.

Deerskin is not an easy book to read. Incredibly disturbing, painful, and triggering, this is NOT a book for everyone. That said, as horrific and raw as this book is, Deerskin is also a resonant, powerful, and empowering read.

From a writing perspective, Robin McKinley tends towards the verbose and the ornate – sometimes this works for her books, and sometimes (in my opinion) it does not. I am happy to say that Deerskin is one of the successful endeavors, with its beautiful, languid prose, vivid images and descriptions. McKinley is retelling a fairy tale, after all, and Deerskin is a decidedly dreamlike book with heavy folklore overtones. As Philip Pullman discusses in his version of the story “Thousandfurs” (and in general for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm), the magic of a fable lies in its telling, and Deerskin excels in this regard with its lush turns of phrase. Even when describing something as simple as cleaning a hut in the middle of winter, or the techniques to feed ailing puppies (both events that occur in this text, mind you), McKinley makes the story effortlessly interesting and surprisingly ethereal.

But beyond the setting, the telling, and the world, Deerskin is really a book that comes down to a horrific story, and a young woman’s stubborn will to live. Heroine Lissar, who becomes Deerskin and Moonwoman, is the sole figure at the heart of this book, and on whose shoulders the tale’s success or failure rests. And let me say this once with feeling: Lissar is an amazing, gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring heroine. I loved her character, I cried for her character, I rooted wholeheartedly for her character. Lissar’s growing dread defines the first part of this book, as she looks into her father’s eyes for the first time and sees something she cannot name, but something that frightens her deeply. Like a nightmare, the next years of her young life unfold with her always pulling away from her father’s notice, until it comes to a crashing, horrific climax following her seventeenth birthday. This, for me, was an incredibly challenging read – I had to keep putting the book down because it was so disturbing – but Robin McKinley does a phenomenal job of building this terror and claustrophobia, and then segueing the book from one of fear to one of hope. Because as dark and horrific as the first part of the story is, as Lissar flees her old life and begins to heal and gradually comes to confront her past, it’s an amazing and empowering arc. And, it has a happy ending – one where Lissar is able to confront and defeat the monster of her past, and have a future of happiness and life.

I could wax on about Lissar and Ash (the most touching, wonderful relationship between a woman and her closest animal companion that I have read probably…ever), about the folkloric elements with the Moonwoman that helps Lissar find her way, about the slow simmering relationship between Lissar and Prince Ossin…but perhaps those are all things that are best discovered by the reader. Suffice it to say, I loved all of these different threads and Robin McKinley’s skill at weaving them together into a complete story.

I don’t know if I’ll read Deerskin again in the near future – most likely not. But I feel stronger and smarter and alive for reading it, and I absolutely recommend it.

Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read a short excerpt from Deerskin online via Amazon’s “Look Inside” function HERE.

Rating: 8 – Excellent


Buy the Book:

No ebook available.

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  • Coral
    March 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    I’m so glad you reviewed this! I’ve been on the fence about this book for ages because I love Robin McKinley but was wary of potential triggers. Now that it has the Book Smugglers seal of approval, I feel a lot better about buying it. Thank you so much πŸ™‚

  • Stephanie Burgis
    March 27, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Ohhhh, I loved this book. I got it for my birthday the year it first came out, which was 20 years ago, and that was the first and last time I read it – but now, 20 years later, I still remember so many scenes and lines of dialogue really vividly – it made that much of an impression on me.

    …But unlike McKinley’s other books, I’ve never, ever re-read this one. I absolutely adored it – I’m so glad I read it, I’ve book-missionized about it to my friends, and I’ll never give up my copy of it – but I haven’t yet brought myself to read it a second time, for all the reasons you describe. It’s just so powerful and so wrenching (but so transcendent, too).

  • de Pizan
    March 27, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Absolutely agree. This book is probably one of the best novels I’ve ever read on dealing with the trauma of rape/incest (which is used SO much in fantasy/fairy tale retellings, but usually done really poorly without any real lasting effects on the main character…they usually shake it off within a few pages and never mention it again), and Lissar’s confrontation scene was amazingly powerful and empowering.

  • eliza
    March 27, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    i read this book for the first time when i was 10 years old. and i was absolutely not prepared for it. and many things that happened were way over my head. but i still liked it. i’ve re-read it several times, but as i get older, the rape scene somehow gets harder and harder to read. last time i started to read it, i put it down there. i feel like i can’t skip it in a reading, as that would be unfair to lissar…

    but i love this book. and i was very pleased to see it on the schedule for this week.

  • Malin
    March 27, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    It’s an amazing book, but it’s not one that lends itself to re-reading. I probably will at some point, I have re-read all my other McKinley books several times. I just so vividly remember the horrible parts of the story, and how much the book made me cry in sympathy with Lissar (full on crazy sobbing, shaking on the sofa, btw), and I don’t think I’m strong enough to pick it back up again just yet.

  • Estara Swanberg
    March 27, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Yes, this. I’ve owned this book since it came out, at the time I bought any McKinley sight unseen and I loved that cover. I’ve only read the book twice since I own it, with years between and it’s, as you said, gut-wrenching and empowering.

  • Amanda
    March 27, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    I’ve been waiting with bated breath for this review! Deerskin is one of my favorite books, probably for all of the reasons you’ve described. Of all my favorite books, this is probably one of my “most reread.” I do always find the pre-rape and rape scenes (and many of the initial survival scenes, like her night by the fire in the cabin) emotionally traumatizing, but there is something about the way McKinley handles these events that resonates with me. I almost always avoid these topics as a rule, but in this book, I find empowerment and strength in Lissar’s self-discovery and healing. I love Lissar so much, and feel she is one of the most real characters I’ve ever read. I think this must be why I revisit the book time and again, though it’s usually a good long stretch of a year or so between readings. Of McKinley’s books (I’ve read all of them) I think this is her most delicately and soulfully written.

  • Linda W
    March 27, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    I’m with Stephanie. I read the book because Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors, but I never read it again. I applaud her for having the guts to tell such a gut wrenching story.

  • Elaine
    March 28, 2013 at 8:00 am

    Same with Stephanie and Linda, I love this book but I’ve only read it once. I agree, it’s really not an easy book to read. I remember crying at several points of it and when it ended, I was emotionally exhausted (and also plain exhausted, it was 2am).
    I sometimes forget that Robin McKinley wrote this because when discussing her books, Deerskin tends to get overshadowed by her other stuff but I think this effort is equally as impressive (more even) given what she had to tackle.

  • Tami
    March 28, 2013 at 8:34 am

    I consider this book to have two “acts”. The opening act contains everything leading up to her partial healing in the cabin.

    The second part begins when she finds the road for the first time.

    You can’t read the second part without reading the first, but having read the first part once, I do not feel the need to read it again. It is VERY hard to deal with … and honestly, paced very slow besideswhich.

    I keep a bookmark on the page where Lissar sets foot upon that road, and I have read the second “act” of this book dozens of times.

    To me, that’s when the book really comes ALIVE. When the books allows for wonderment and joy and friendship and healing.

    I cannot love her relationship with Ash more. I adore everything about every scene with the puppies. I love the bumbling, unhandsome prince and the iron filings sensation and that last breathless run to the castle. Even skipping the first act, I always cry during the climax, and I always need to hug someone (in the past, it was my dog, and now it’s my husband) when I reach the end.

    The entire book is not re-readable to me, but the second act SHINES.

  • hapax
    March 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    I am surprised at all the people who say they do not re-read DEERSKIN (not condemning, mind you, but surprised) because of all McKinley’s books, this is the one I re-read *most*.

    Some books are great reads, some books are fun reads, some books are comfort reads; DEERSKIN is the one of the few that is an empowering, inspiring, healing read, and I never close the last page without becoming (for a little while) a better, stronger person.

  • Angie
    March 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    It was such a lovely surprise to see this review pop up, Thea. I never see DEERSKIN reviewed these days and it had such an impact on me when I first read it. I’m definitely what you would term a Robin McKinley fan. But this book. It is beyond beautiful. I have reread it multiple times. It doesn’t get any less painful, but it is always rewarding.

  • Thea
    March 28, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

    I completely agree with everyone’s comments about this being a powerful and empowering book, no matter how difficult it is to read, and I love hearing everyone’s different perspectives regarding re-reading vs not re-reading. Right now, because it is so fresh in my mind, I can’t see myself re-reading the book anytime soon…but in a year? Or the next time I feel like being brave, and hurting, and growing as a person? I think I’ll be back to give Deerskin another read.

    Thank you, a million times over, to everyone that recommended this book. I cried, I ached, I loved – this is one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in years. THANK YOU!

  • Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books
    March 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I’ve always heard that Deerskin was based on Perrault’s tale Donkeyskin, although I believe that’s just another author telling the same basic tale. I read and quite enjoyed Deerskin many years ago, and I have always found Donkeyskin to be an interesting Cinderella derivative. It definitely is a disturbing tale, and I think what makes it more interesting is that once you remove the disturbing elements of it, it can no longer be called a Thousandfurs/Donkeyskin tale. Writers can remove the part where Cinderella’s sisters cut off their toes and not change the nature of the retelling, but the incest is kind of key to the story. Lovely review! You’ve made me want to search through my boxes to find my copy for a reread.

  • Sarina
    May 19, 2013 at 5:33 am

    I’ve fallen in love with Robin McKinley’s writing ever since a chance meeting with “Beauty”. And “Rose Daughter” has mesmerized me. I wasn’t sure about “Deerskin”, I thought I wouldn’t be able to deal with the traumatic experience and this would be a deeply dark read. But after reading your review, I feel…this would be a good read for me. Thank you for helping me decide. πŸ˜€

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