Robin McKinley sure knows how to use the English language. We are in her spell from the beginning. Deerskin commences with Lissar’s nurse telling her a fairy tale — but the fairy tale is the story of how Lissar’s larger-than-life parents met. She is told from the very cradle what paragons her mother and father are, and yet she herself is ignored by them. McKinley seduces us with the the magical kingdom’s rarefied beauty and glamour — and also the coldness and rot at its core. When Lissar flees, we are shown, with the same deftness, an inhospitable wilderness. And when she finds the kingdom of Cofta, we can’t help but notice the difference between it and Lissar’s old home; it is more pompous in its architecture, but filled with human warmth. McKinley is equally at home in the throne room and in the dog kennels, and she makes all of it real for us, as Lissar, with the help of the Moonwoman, heals and begins to imagine a new life for herself.
I knock off half a star because of a little peeve of mine. McKinley’s imaginary world is very similar to our own in terms of flora and fauna. People own dogs, ride horses, and hunt deer and rabbits. But then McKinley feels obligated to point out that this is an imaginary world by also populating the forests with “ootag” and “toro.” These words are bandied about constantly, but never quite explained, except that they’re animals. I still don’t know what an ootag is. As for toro, my guess would have been a wild bull (given my knowledge of Romance languages) — but guess what — it’s more like a giant stag. Why couldn’t she have just said “stag”? I don’t know. The made-up words are jarring. Also, the climactic scene is somewhat overdone. Other than that, splendidly done.