When you like fairy tales and their retellings as much as I do, there are some books where you know going in they’re not going to be fun. No matter how well written, no matter how skilled an author is at creating memorable characters, the fairy tale plot simply makes it clear that there will be at least certain scenes that will be difficult to read. Donkeyskin is such a fairy tale and I think it’s no wonder there are so few retellings of it.
by Robin McKinley
Published by: Open Road Media, 1993
Ebook: 312 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side.
Princess Lissla Lissar is the only child of the king and his queen, who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Everyone loved the splendid king and his matchless queen so much that no one had any attention to spare for the princess, who grew up in seclusion, listening to the tales her nursemaid told about her magnificent parents.
But the queen takes ill of a mysterious wasting disease and on her deathbed extracts a strange promise from her husband: “I want you to promise me . . . you will only marry someone as beautiful as I was.”
The king is crazy with grief at her loss, and slow to regain both his wits and his strength. But on Lissar’s seventeenth birthday, two years after the queen’s death, there is a grand ball, and everyone present looks at the princess in astonishment and whispers to their neighbors, How like her mother she is!
On the day after the ball, the king announces that he is to marry again—and that his bride is the princess Lissla Lissar, his own daughter.
Lissar, physically broken, half mad, and terrified, flees her father’s lust with her one loyal friend, her sighthound, Ash. It is the beginning of winter as they journey into the mountains—and on the night when it begins to snow, they find a tiny, deserted cabin with the makings of a fire ready-laid in the hearth.
Thus begins Lissar’s long, profound, and demanding journey away from treachery and pain and horror, to trust and love and healing.
Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Her nursemaid has told her the story of how her father won her mother many times and it is a truth well fixed in Lissar’s mind as well as the entire kingdom that her mother is simply the most beautiful creature they ever beheld. When she dies, her father the king goes mad with grief and, after a few years, decides to marry again. As Lissar has grown into a young woman, she looks more and more like her mother so – honoring his dying wife’s last wish to only marry another woman if she is as beautiful as herself – the king decides to take Lissar, his own daughter, as his new queen. Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse, incest.
The terror of that fairy tale is hard to describe and Robin McKinley has taken on quite a task in retelling it. Through Lissar’s eyes, the reader experiences just what it might feel like to be this fairy tale heroine, to be chosen by your own father as his new bride. I cannot begin to explain what I felt when the king made this announcement, when he decided to marry his own daughter and share her bed – it was truly the worst part of this book to read and it’s the reason I will never re-read it (although it was an amazing book).
Lissar is a quiet heroine, one without friends except her beloved dog Ash, whom she takes with her when she manages to flee the palace into the cold winter world. Physically and emotionally broken, Lissar meets a sorceress who grants her the gift of time to heal as well as a change in appearance and a magical dress made of deerskin. The following passages read like a dream (or a nightmare) with Lissar somehow surviving a winter alone with her dog in a hut in the woods. Her healing happens slowly and only by pushing away any memories of what happened to her, but after some time, she manages to get a job at the court of another kingdom. She is supposed to try and keep a litter of dogs alive whose mother has died. Nobody believes she can manage but Lissar throws herself into this task as if it were the only thing keeping her alive.
Here, Lissar makes a new life for herself, caring for dogs, even befriending the prince who has as much love for his dogs as Lissar does. But sooner or later, Lissar’s past catches up with her and she has to confront her suppressed memories, has to remember who she is and what has come to pass before her life in the royal kennels.
This is an incredibly difficult book to read because of what it puts Lissar through. But at the same time, it is beautifully written, very slow moving but never boring, and ultimately rewarding. Lissar’s bond with Ash as well as the litter of dogs that everyone thought doomed to die, was just wonderful. The friendship that slowly grows between her and the Prince felt real and believable – there is no insta-romance simply because he’s a prince and, hey, we’re in a fairy tale, so naturally the princess in hiding and the prince must end up together. There is a scene at the very end in which Lissar and Prince Ossin confront the truth, that definitely doesn’t fit the mould of happily-ever-after but is so beautiful and touching because it doesn’t hide the past. Theirs feels like a relationship built on trust and love and acceptance.
I made it sound like there is almost no plot in this book and while it isn’t your action-packed adventure novel, there are some very exciting chapters. Lissar and Ash’s life in the woods come with the threat of wildlife, Lissar’s life the palace bringts its own threats. It was also great watching Lissar turn from a young, quiet girl in a white dress into an almost revered woman called Moonwoman, where before she was simply called Deerskin. The magic McKinley added to this story is exactly as it should be – it has no apparent rules, you don’t know where it comes from or even if it’s real but it gives the story a mythical quality that pushed all my happy-buttons.
Again, this book is not for everyone, and it is definitely not fun! But I found it a powerful, beautifully executed fairy tale retelling that I heartily recommend. Few authors would manage to tell such a tale without gratuitous descriptions of the violence or without cheap “solutions” for Lissar’s pain. Robin McKinley managed just that – she wrote a gorgeous tale of pain and healing, of friendship and love, and especially of a bond between a girl and her dog that touched me right to the bone.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!