Robin McKinley is one of my all-time favorite YA authors. Not only do I love her imaginative stories, but she also writes with grippingly beautiful prose. Deerskin, a fairy tale adaptation written for adults, was one of the few McKinley creations that I had not read. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this Kirkus Review of it:
Turgid, lurid, soporific fluff. Might have made an adequate fairy tale at a twentieth of the bulk. McKinley will have to do much better than this to capture an adult audience.
WHAT? How could anyone call a McKinley book turgid or lurid? Determined to prove this review wrong, I immediately checked out the book from the library and moved it to the top of my TBR pile.
Princess Lissar was the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world, and when her mother died, her father was completely heartbroken. Never would he find another woman to match her…until his own daughter begins to grow into womanhood. If this is starting to feel creepy to you, there’s a reason for that. Lissar’s father decides to marry her, and when she rejects him, he rapes her and leaves her to die. Along with her faithful fleethound, she painfully flees into the forest and spends months recovering her health. Blessed by the moon goddess with a changed face and a dress of spotless deerskin, Lissar travels to a nearby kingdom where she works in Prince Ossin’s kennels taking care of his fleethounds. She finds a remarkable affinity for the stout, dog-loving prince, and he is impressed by her beauty, diligence, and determination. The story comes to a dramatic conclusion when her father shows up in the same kingdom, seeking to marry Ossin’s sister.
This book is based on an old fairy tale named Donkeyskin, a fairy tale I remember reading as a child. Consequently, I knew where the story was going, and the king’s behavior toward his daughter wasn’t exactly a surprise. I wasn’t very far into the book, however, when I realized that the disparaging Kirkus review might be a little closer to the mark than I was previously willing to accept. As Lissar wanders into the forest, I found myself skipping paragraph after paragraph of, yes, turgid description. And the scenes of her examining her body and reliving the rape were, yes, downright lurid. McKinley’s YA fairy tale adaptations are full of charm and beauty. This book seemed more like the psychological analysis of a rape and incest victim. And while there’s probably a place for that sort of thing somewhere in the literary world, it’s not the cream and sugar I like to stir into my fantasy novels.