I’m going to be explicit about some plot details, because most of the criticism of this book seems to come from people who didn’t know what they were getting into. So: Deerskin is a fairy tale retelling about a princess who is raped by her father. If you demand that your fairy tales be lighthearted, or your rape/trauma stories 100% realistic, this may not be the book for you. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a fantastic book, although there were times I put it aside for something more cheerful.
Lissar is the princess of an unnamed country, but she grows up neglected, as her parents are utterly absorbed in their fairy-tale love for each other. It gets worse when the queen dies and the king begins to lust after Lissar. That’s the first quarter of the book; 3/4 of it details Lissar’s initial reaction to her trauma (blocking out everything) and her slow journey toward recovery. Another reviewer put it well by saying that the rape isn’t physically graphic, but it’s emotionally graphic, and the aftermath even more so. (Well, the aftermath is sometimes physically graphic too, actually.)
But for all that, it really is a beautiful story. Deerskin is very well-written; McKinley has such a way with words that the book does feel like a fairy tale, but at the same time honest and real. And there is hope and optimism to balance out the gloom. You probably have to at least like dogs to truly enjoy this book: Lissar’s dog Ash gets a lot of page time. A couple years ago I criticized another McKinley book, Spindle’s End, for its numerous talking animal characters, but she does an excellent job with the animals here: rather than putting dialogue in Ash’s mouth, she shows us a dog behaving like a dog, and she keeps the canine cast small, which allows the reader to visualize Ash and get attached to her (and, to a lesser extent, to the puppies). Actually, just about everything I disliked about Spindle’s End is not a problem here. The romance is sweet, too.
I found the book to be compelling reading throughout, and was certainly glad for Lissar when her life started to improve, but it’s worth noting that Ossin’s kingdom, where she winds up, is probably the biggest fairy tale in this book. (Apart from some fun asides, like the unique take on dragons.) Everyone is welcoming and generous and there’s almost no class consciousness at all. People in real life can be so ugly to rape survivors that I’m not sure how I feel about the book’s putting all the ugliness from people besides Lissar's father before the rape and having everyone who appears afterwards be so nice. That’s not an illegitimate way to write such a story, but it is a choice that merits more attention than it seems to have received.
At any rate, that’s not why I took off a star: that’s for the climax, which is one of those high-magic showdowns (in an otherwise relatively low-magic book) that makes very little sense. A lot of fireworks come apparently out of nowhere. It did not work for me at all, although at least the ending did.
Finally, then: this is an adult book, and a very good one, but it’s not just another pretty fairy tale retelling. Read it only if you’re willing to go to the dark places where it will take you.