Robin McKinley has won both the Newbery Award and Newbery Honors for previous fantasy novels. Deerskin is based on “Donkeyskin,” a fairy tale with adult subject matter. McKinley uses this subject matter to craft a tale in the style and tone of a romantic fantasy with underlying social commentary. The unassuming simplicity and kindness at the court of Ossin’s parents is sharply contrasted to the glitter and superficiality in the court of Lissar’s parents.

The attitude of the courtiers when Lissar’s father declares his intention to marry his own daughter signals the beginning of a second pervasive theme. They ask themselves how this evil creature could have bewitched their wonderful king. Their comments bespeak an innate sexism on the part of both men and women of this court, implying that men are helpless to resist subliminal messages of temptation. Lissar’s father first beats her, then rapes her, thus demonstrating starkly that this is an act of violence, not of love. Any sympathy one might have felt for the king because of his wife’s egotistical legacy is destroyed completely by the cold ferocity of the attack, which breaks Lissar’s resistance.

Lissar’s benumbed departure from her father’s palace is rendered in terms more suitable to describing the mental state of a trauma victim than the flight of a fairy-tale princess. The fleethound, Ash, is the symbol and a source of her slowly emerging determination to...

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