The plot of this book is simple, yet hard to summarize without giving it all away. Princess Lissar is the daughter of the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. When she is fifteen, her mother dies, after making her father promise never to marry anyone less beautiful than she. When Lissar is seventeen, her father realizes that she herself is as beautiful as her mother once was…
The first part of this book is extremely disturbing. From the beginning, the reader senses that something is not right with the Queen’s obsession with her beauty, and the King’s obsession with the Queen. From here on to the violent and horrible conclusion of Part One, the feeling of something very wrong increases. McKinley’s writing, here and throughout the book, is masterful — on par with or surpassing anything I have read of hers previously.
The rest of the book is the story of Lissar’s gradual and painful recovery of herself — body, mind, and spirit — from her past. She is aided in this journey of self-repossession by her faithful dog, Ash, who stays by her side throughout. The book is in many ways a celebration of the female. This book could never have been written by a man, and I donÕt think a male reader would understand or appreciate it nearly so much. It contains not a message of female empowerment, just an honest look at femaleness. It is at the same time an intensely personal story of a young woman struggling to overcome an incredibly painful past and regain herself.
Usually the portrayal of woman is painted using pagan imagery — the moon, earth, and lots of blood. This is effective, although slightly weird. Lissar has a couple of encounters with a sort of earth-goddess figure who apparently gives her some supernatural powers (and helps her on her path to healing), but all in all fantasy plays a relatively minor role in this story. (Other people with whom Lissar comes into contact with think she is the Moonwoman, a figure who may or may not be the same as the Lady who helps her, but she insists she is not — in spite of similar features to their stories.) I felt that the book, although definitely not particularly Christian in its exploration of femaleness, did not contain much that was anti-Christian either. And, notably, Lissar cannot find complete fulfillment until she is able to truly love and trust a man — not exactly a feminist idea. I also appreciated the book’s portrayal of appearance versus reality — beautiful people are not always good, and people who are not physically attractive can have hearts of gold.
Just as a side note — dogs play an important part in this story, both Ash and other dogs (and puppies!). Women who like dogs will probably appreciate this aspect of the story, as I did. It was fun to have dogs in such a central role.
Content warning: Rape is an ugly thing. Incest is also an ugly thing. Combine the two and, well, it’s pretty shocking. The book is not especially physically graphic in its descriptions, but emotionally, in the hands of a masterful writer, it is definitely disturbing. Also, throughout the book, and especially in the earlier parts when Lissar is working to recover her body, there is a fair amount of honest discussion of the female body. I didn’t find it pornographic, but as a woman I don’t know how it would appear to a man. (In general I don’t think this book would do much for a male reader — it is so intensely female.) In any case the book is not for children.