Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is her “except” book; any description of her accumulated novels will probably include an “ . . . except Deerskin.” It’s a re-write of “Donkeyskin” in its Charles Perrault version, in which a widowed king wants to marry his daughter. (McKinley talks about her problems with Perrault’s version on her website.)
In case you don’t follow those links, Deerskin gets an “except” because the pivotal event is the beating and rape of the princess, Lissar, by her father. It’s a brutal yet non-exploitative piece of writing: an amazing sense of foreboding and dread before, and very little physical detail during, just reactions and effects—which are more than sufficient. I have heard that Lissar’s reactions ring very true to people who have been severely traumatized; I personally couldn’t say, but the force of her trauma, and the distance she must travel to healing, makes the book a powerful and lingering one.
That said, I still want to argue with quite a lot of it. It’s possible that fairy tales—particularly the kind with helpful goddesses—might not fit very well with psychologically realistic trauma. It’s not that Lissar couldn’t use the help, or wasn’t due for something easier than her life to date—but I can’t help but obscurely feel that the magical help diminishes her very real accomplishment of recovering (partly this is because I think some of the magical help wouldn’t actually have worked). The conflation of her with the Moonwoman also makes me slightly uncomfortable in ways I am unable to articulate.
I should point out that there’s at least one way in which this isn’t an “except” book for McKinley: the ending jumps up several levels of abstraction, going as mythic or more as Spindle’s End, which is to say, very mythic. I think I followed it, but it’s too bad that because it went so mythic, it couldn’t answer a few practical questions I had about the aftermath.
(I think I’m going to put spoilers over on my LiveJournal, for people who’ve read the book and are wondering what I’m talking about. I’ll leave the link in comments.)
For people interested in taking apart fairy tales and getting them to work as stories, Deerskin is worth looking at. I’m not convinced that it succeeds, but I freely admit my reaction may be idiosyncratic.