Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A retelling of Donkeyskin, or Allerleirauh. A Historical Fantasy Review.

by Robin McKinley

I like this one quite a bit. It's subtly suggestive of a fantasy, with the gravity-defying hair, and the dog is beautiful. It's intriguing.

Summary: Lissar is the forgotten daughter of a magnificent king and queen. Her mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and her father is handsome and renowned for his bravery. They are wrapped up in one another and oblivious to the shy, awkward daughter who haunts the castle. The queen, however, is not long for the world, and when she passes the kingdom is grief-stricken. The king cannot imagine following his advisers' counsel that he must remarry, for what lady could compare to the most beautiful woman in the known world? Lissar consoles herself by raising a sighthound and becoming familiar with the healing powers of herbs that grow in her garden.

As Lissar grows more and more beautiful, nearing adulthood, she begins to resemble her mother, until she is almost an exact likeness. And the king in his mad grief cannot let go of the memory of his lost love...

My Review: This is a beautifully written and poignant novel, but I want to give a warning: it is what you think it is. Lissar becomes a victim of a horrific crime, and the second part of the novel is a redeeming story of strength and hope in the face of evil. It is difficult to read, and so I won't recommend this to everyone. It is also graphic (though necessarily so) in its depiction of the crime, and I know if I had read this younger than 14 or so, I probably would have been pretty disturbed.

McKinley notes the Charles Perrault version of Donkeyskin as her source for the original fairy tale, though there are numerous other versions, all likely dating from the middle ages. The story itself is typically left out of collections or edited from its truer path due to the nature of the content. Fairy tales these days are typically expected to be light and easy, with a clear moral and adaptability to any situation. But if you read into the older, "left out" Grimm fairy tales, you'll see much darker fare such as Donkeyskin. Fairy tales and folklore were often meant to scare children out of doing something wrong. In the original version of Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their heels and toes trying to fit into Cinderella's glass slipper. While Donkeyskin is probably on the more extreme side of these darker tales, there are plenty of others that include gruesome details and bad ends.

Deerskin is fascinating from a historical perspective, in that regard. We probably also tend to think of the middle ages as a chivalric era and high morals, but that time period gave birth to this horrific tale of corruption and decrepit kings.

McKinley writes the story in a believable way. There is some magic, yes. There are a few dragons, myths, and impossible feats. But the greater part of this novel is its believable heroine, her attachment to animals, and the chance for redemption. The first part of the book details Lissar's early life and the death of the queen, and I read with trepidation and disgust, I was so involved in the story. The crime against Lissar was horrible because it was such a real example of the dangers women have faced throughout history.

The second part of the story makes this a book that you won't regret haivng read. Instead of leaving you feeling hopeless and ashamed of the horrid things that can happen in the world, you're left knowing that there might be a second chance for happiness. Lissar, who seems to have suffered the worst kind of fate, becomes a beautiful creature, able to seek justice for herself and others. While this is definitely a rough book to get through, it is ultimately an intricate examination of humanity, and a celebration of resilience.

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