As Princess Lissla Lissar reaches womanhood, it is clear to all the kingdom that in her beauty she is the image of her dead mother, the queen. But this likeness forces her to flee from her father’s lust and madness; and in the pain and horror of that flight she forgets who she is and what it is she flees from: forgets almost everything but the love and loyalty of her dog, Ash, who accompanies her. But a chance encounter on the road leads to a job in another king’s kennels, where the prince finds himself falling in love with the new kennel maid . . . and one day he tells her of a princess named Lissla Lissar, who had a dog named Ash.
MY RATING: 4 STARS
I’m unfamiliar with the story of “Donkeyskin,” but I’ve been a fan of Robin McKinley for half my life, so I wasn’t about to pass this one by. I saw three-quarters of the reviews on Goodreads warn to approach this with caution, and at least that number call this a beautiful retelling, and thus armed, I began.
First of all, they weren’t kidding. This book deals with horrific abuse and its consequences, and Ms. McKinley gives no quarter describing either. Part One is filled with such dread and a sense of doom that I felt physically sick waiting for the inevitable to happen, and when it did I had to stop reading and come back when I could go on without crying. The rest details the pain and struggle to carry on after such a blow, and it was heart wrenching and emotional to say the least. I don’t think anyone who has experienced something similar could read this and not relate.
After an opening chapter that had an old-school fairy tale vibe, the rest was classic McKinley, with a poetic feel for language and imagery that stays with you. It was hard to connect with Lissar right away, she was kept so vague and overshadowed by her parents, but the neglect she endured through her childhood made the turnaround following her mother’s death hit even harder. Suddenly, she was her father’s obsession, and her struggle to avoid the manipulations of his court got me on her side in a hurry. The connection with her solidified as the story moved on, and I became genuinely invested in her, cared about her suffering, and wanted her to overcome it.
The supporting cast is quite limited and not nearly as dimensional; the human characters are overshadowed by dogs most of the time. I would have liked a little more depth in Ossin and to have seen a little more of Lilac, Ammy, and Barley. Ossin in particular deserved a little more attention, as he wasn’t the standard Prince Charming. He wasn’t handsome, he preferred dogs over people, and he wasn’t always rushing off to save damsels in distress. The friendship, compassion and love he showed Lissar was enough to get my attention, and it would have been nice if he had a greater part in the story.
It’s a trend with Robin McKinley novels to wander a bit at first and end with finales that make you scratch your head and wonder what just happened (Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Pegasus, Chalice, you get the picture) but this one made me reread every paragraph of the climax at least three times just to be sure of what was going on, and I still can’t be sure I got the whole thing. Not to say it wasn’t good, just that I didn’t see it coming and the execution was a little…iffy, perhaps? Given that I’m familiar with the author, I expected something of the sort, so no big deal, but it’s mainly why I gave this four stars instead of five.
I’ll close with some of my favorite quotes:
What remained was a sense of the Lady, of her voice, the touch of her fingers, the calm of knowing the Lady had intervened on Lissar’s behalf. The peacefulness was part of the intervention; Lissar knew she was grateful, beyond grateful, for having been plucked up from her old fate and set down again, facing some new direction, leading to some new fate; but the memory of why she had needed the intervention was an empty, battered box or trunk or cupboard. No, Lissar thought very quietly. It is not empty; but I can close it for now, and put it away. I will draw it down later, and open it again; the Lady has given me time and healing, time for healing. I will be strong again when I open that box, strong enough to open it. My strength now is to set it aside.
I was no child, for you and my mother gave me no childhood; and my maidenhood you tore from me, that I might never become a woman; and a woman I have not become, for I have been too afraid. But I return to you now all that you did give to me: all the rage and the terror, the pain and the hatred that should have been love. The nightmares, and the waking dreams that are worse than nightmares because they are memories. These I return to you, for I want them no more, and I will not bear them one whit of my time on this earth more.
I am hurt…in ways you cannot see, and that I cannot explain, even to myself, but only know that they are there, and a part of me, as much as my hands and eyes and breath are a part of me.
With the knowledge of her aloneness came the rush of self-declaration: I will not be nothing.
A beautiful and moving
story, and if you can survive the heartbreak and sorrow, it’s well worth it.