a wonderful fantasy novel by Robin McKinley, who also wrote The Blue Sword and The Hero And The Crown, one of the relatively rare coming-of-age novels about a woman. Lissar, who later becomes known as Deerskin, and her fleethound Ash must leave their home and their country and find new lives and identities for themselves. While this book does focus on a woman and part of the story has romantic overtones, this is *not* a romance novel, nor is it solely for women. It is just a good fantasy novel on its own merits, regardless of focus and subject matter. It is a powerful book--no one i know, male or female who has read it has remained unmoved by it, and most women find it in some way rings true in their own searches for their own identities their own lives.

Deerskin
Written by Robin McKinley
An Ace Book, published 1993, by The Berkley Publishing Group
ISBN 0-441-14226-5

Princess Lissar is the daughter of The Most Beautiful Woman in Seven Kingdoms and the king she chose from her seven suitors. Lissar grows up with no attention from her parents as they are too absorbed by one another to pay her any attention whatsoever. Her nurse tells her stories about her mother and about her parent's courtship rather than read her stories from the books she has been given.

When Lissar is twelve, her mother dies from a mysterious wasting disease, on her deathbed extracting from the king a promise that he will wed mo woman less beautiful than she. The King is driven insane by his grief. His counsellors take over the running of the kingdom. Lissar herself is, as usual, ignored during the period of mourning, and no special place is given to her at the funeral. The only person to think of her own loss is Prince Ossin, the heir to the throne of a neighbouring kingdom. He sends her a fleethound puppy, which he has bred himself, to be her companion. 

This puppy, named Ash, becomes the princess's reason for living. Wishing to be able to train the puppy herself, she demands her rooms be changed to to ground floor so she will be able to take Ash in and out as necessary. In these rooms, and away from her nurse who has been made prostrate with grief over the death of the Queen, Lissar grows into her own personality. She meets, at her own insistence, an aunt of one of her waiting women who is an herbalist and a scholar. She trains Ash with ease, as the puppy genuinely loves her and wishes to please her.

Her life goes smoothly until the night of her seventeenth birthday, when a ball is held in her honour. For the first time the court and her father take notice of her. She is claimed early in the evening by her father who lets her dance with almost no one else, in spite of the ball being held, at least in part, as a way of beginning the choice of a husband for her.

She retires early from the ball, and washes herself many times before she can sleep.

The next morning she is summoned by her father who tells the entire court that in three days Lissar is to marry. All are shocked and amazed by the news, but when he tells them that it is he himself who is to be her bridegroom the entire court is incensed. Lissar barricades herself in her room for the three days, and of the evening of the third, her father bursts through the garden wall, bashes her dog into a window frame, and beats and rapes Lissar - partly for his lust, and partly as a punishment for locking herself away from him. Three days of barricading, three violations.

Lissar is ready to die. The only thing that brings her back to herself is Ash's tongue licking at her face. Lissar had believed Ash dead, but when she realises she is alive, but hurt, she drew herself back to her pain filled body and cared for her friend's wounds. Then the two of them escape.

Lissar and Ash journey through the land in secret, in the end coming to a deserted hut and wintering there. After five months Lissar is brought back into reality by a visit by a mysterious lady who heals the last of her and Ash's wounds and gives the "the gift of time." When they awake, Ash's smooth coat has become thick and long, and Lissar's hair has changed from red-highlighted-black to pure white.

When winter ends Lissar and Ash journey again, in a direction away from the city where they had lived, and Lissar takes with her no memory of who she has been, nor of what has befallen her. She meets people again, and at last comes to the city of the kingdom she has now entered. She is given work by the prince - keeping his six orphaned puppies alive, a task all but he had given up any hope of completing successfully. During the battle for the six baby fleethounds' lives, the prince and Lissar become close friends.

The prince invites Lissar to the ball which is being held to honour an irritating princess from another kingdom, and takes her to a room filled with portraits of many different members of royal families, sent as calling cards when the subjects were being advertised as marriage prospects. Lissar recognises herself in one of these portraits and her memories come back to her. Who she is, whence she fled, and why.

After the ball, the prince asks Lissar to marry him, and she flees back to her hut in the mountains.

A sudden urge at the beginning of the following spring sends her back to the prince's city just in time to avert a disastrous marriage for the princes little sister, and to be discovered as herself...

Lissar's story is both fairytale and moral story. A young woman's dealing with a terrible trauma, in what appear to me to be a fairly realistic manner. Her temporary insanity, shown from within her own head for the most part, is entirely believable, and her relationships seem genuine also. Deerskin is a fairytale, not in that it is a book about faries - it isn't - but in that it is a story of a Princess on her Hero's Journey.

 

Deer"skin` (?), n.

The skin of a deer, or the leather which is made from it.

Hakluyt. Longfellow.

 

© Webster 1913.

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