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Deerskin is a novel by Britain-based author Robin McKinley. It's a Grimmification of the Perrault fairy tale Donkeyskin, in which a king, who had been married to the most beautiful woman in the world (or in the book, the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms) promises his dying wife he will not remarry any woman who isn't as beautiful as she was. Of course through the years he never finds one, until their only child, a daughter, grows up to be the spitting image of her mother and thus draws her father's... attention.
Deerskin takes it Up to Eleven in grimness factor--the princess is shown as completely neglected long before her mother dies, the entire kingdom far too fixated on her beautiful, beloved, but fundamentally shallow parents. Neither parent even takes any notice of her until her mother dies, and her father looks at her in a way she can't interpret but really doesn't like. She spends the next two years largely hiding from him, until, the day after her seventeenth birthday, he announces his intention to marry her. Naturally she's as horrified as the rest of the court, but since the court can't bring themselves to think the King is wrong, they blame it on her.
She locks herself in her rooms, but after three nights her father breaks in and rapes her, leaving her unconscious, horribly injured, and as she will later find out, pregnant.
The rest of the story is a somewhat unsettling chronicle of her life in the wake of that--for months she can't remember anything much beyond her own name and that of her dog. She runs away into the woods and eventually finds a cabin where she passes the winter, subsisting on largely rotten food, hardly able to walk and unable to fully use one of her arms. A Convenient Miscarriage (wholly justified, considering she was half-starved and badly injured) temporarily brings back her memories, but a being called the Moonwoman takes them from her until she's strong enough to face them again.
Though it takes place in a fantasy setting, it's an at times gruelingly realistic portrayal of sexual abuse and its after-effects. One of McKinley's most adult books, it's definitely not one anyone younger than their mid-teens should probably be reading, unless they want to be traumatized.
Deerskin includes examples of the following tropes:
- Adults Are Useless: Even the other adults in her life who become vaguely aware there's something... off... in the way her father thinks of her don't even try to interfere.
- And Now You Must Marry Me: What Lissar's father decides he's going to do with his daughter. She is of course horrified.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted. Lissar's parents are beautiful to the point of being living legends, but neither is a good person. Also Ossin, who should be the handsome prince according to fairy tale conventions, is rather plain. Played straight with Lissar herself.
- Break the Cutie: More like "smash the cutie's sanity with a mallet."
- Calling the Old Man Out: Lissar eventually lets her father have it.
- Convenient Miscarriage: Happens to Lissar in the hut in the woods. Considering her injuries, her so-called food, her mental state, and the squalor in which she was living, it's really more surprising that it didn't happen sooner. When a woman is dying, as Lissar pretty explicitly was, her body will naturally jettison any pregnancy it can't support. The strange thing, though, is that Lissar didn't have the miscarriage until the moment she realised she was pregnant; at that point she was actually in pretty good shape compared to how she had been a month or two prior: broken, bleeding, bone-weary and starving.
- Dances and Balls: Lissar's seventeenth's birthday party.
- Deus Ex Machina: Sort of. The Moonwoman, a quasi-religious, quasi-mythological creature, takes away Lissar's memories and grants her some divine gifts to make her strong enough to deal with them when they are returned to her.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Lissar, once she's left the mountains for lower country, tells a friend "I like to know where I'm walking. In shoes, I'm always walking on shoes."
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Oh so very, very much, and even then the ending is more realistic than completely happy.
- Engagement Challenge: How Lissar's parents met and married.
- Grimmification: And how.
- God Save Us From the Queen: When the Queen is dying, though no one speaks of it, everyone but the King is terrified of her. Her spirit at one point apparently literally tries to attack her daughter as well. This is especially terrifying for everyone because until her health started failing she was strongly believed to be The High Queen.
- Growing Up Sucks: At least, what happens to Lissar when she does grow up certainly does.
- Hormone-Addled Teenager: Completely and totally averted with Lissar, thanks in part to the unsettling vibes she gets from her father; her main interests are gardening and her dog. Robin McKinley tends to avert this trope in general.
- Kick the Dog: Literally, when the king attacks Ash for protecting Lissar.
- Laser-Guided Amnesia: At first Lissar does this to herself, wiping out everything but her own name and her dog's; later the Moonwoman does it for her, shutting her memories away until she might be capable of dealing with them.
- Laser-Guided Karma: It takes several years, but Lissar eventually gets revenge on her father.
- Missing Mom: Lissar's mother's death is what sets off the chain of misery.
- No Periods, Period: Averted.
- The Moonwoman is the goddess who protects the downtrodden and finds things that are lost, but there's also a lot of symbolism about the moon's cycle.
- Parental Abandonment: Emotionally, they were never there to begin with; in her narrative she states they were "only a little more real" than the characters in the stories her nursemaid told her.
- Parental Incest: Lissar and her father; it's implied there was some of this going on with her mother and HER father as well, seeing as it's stated repeatedly that the Queen's father was so unhealthily attached to her he'd rather kill all her suitors than ever let her marry and leave him.
- Pimped-Out Dress: Lissar wears one for her seventeenth birthday.
- Prince Charming: Ossin is something of a reconstructed example. He's got the personality, for the most part...but he's fat, shy, homely, would rather be out at the kennel with his dogs than in the royal court. (Somehow, this adds up to making him more likable than a straight example of the trope would be.)
- He sits up at night with orphaned puppies. How much more heroic can you get?
- Rape as Drama: More like Rape As Torture.
- Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Lissla Lissar and her mother.
- So Beautiful It's a Curse: Played disturbingly and realistically straight, as the princess's resemblance to her beautiful mother brings her absolutely nothing but grief.
- They Just Don't Get It: Her father's courtiers are all too willing to think that Lissar has seduced him. This trope, disturbingly, has occurred among readers as well: one reader wrote McKinley an irate letter telling her that she had ruined Lissar's capacity to be a heroine, because fairy tale heroines have to be virgins.
- White-Haired Pretty Girl: The Moonwoman. Lissar starts with reddish-black hair, becomes a white haired pretty girl, and by the end gets her old color back.
- Woman in White: Lissar in her deerskin dress and white hair. The effect is enough to make people think she's not quite human.
- World's Most Beautiful Woman: What the queen was in life, and eerily more so after her death.