She was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms...
This is a fairytale. This is also, most emphatically, not for kids.
This is the tale of Princess Lissla Lissar, the daughter of a fairytale couple, the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and the lucky prince who went to the ends of the world to find a leaf plucked and unfallen from the tree of sorrow, and an apple plucked and unfallen from the tree of joy. As a commenter on Amazon put it, the price of such a powerful love is a codependent relationship that warps the whole kingdom. The people cheer for the king and queen, and barely remember that they have a daughter. Her very nursemaid got the position because it was something she could do for the queen.
Of course, this sickness of the kingdom is not immediately evident. We are introduced to the land through the viewpoint of the princess, who has never known anything different, and it is only through accumulation of hints that one can realize just how wrong this situation is. And when the queen gets sick - and perhaps loses the will to live when she believes her beauty might be diminished - the cancer at the heart of the kingdom begins to become evident. Painters are sought for, so that the queen might have a portrait painted of her in her full beauty. The painter chosen, perhaps sensitive to the feel of the kingdom, calls for light as he constructs from memory a perfect woman, one more beautiful than the queen ever was. The queen extracts a promise from her husband to never marry unless the girl is as beautiful as she is.
And then Lissla Lissar grows up to look like her mother.
This is a dark tale, based on a fairytale that is not often reprinted in modern anthologies. McKinley takes the dark heart of the tale and follows it to its logical conclusion - and adds to the nightmare by having the court blame the victim. They cannot believe that their king - their perfect king - could possibly be at fault for desiring his daughter, and so any support she might have evaporates. The hardest part of the book to read is an insight into true terror, far more real than any demons could be. And then Lissar escapes, to leave the kingdom and to try to build a new life for herself.
Many negative reviews have been written about this book, for the dark tone, for the "unbelievable" transformation of the king from a perfect fairytale figure to a nightmare, for the shock, trauma, and amnesia that the princess goes through, and for the ending which is not unequivocably happy. However, I saw nothing but positive reviews from those who had experienced such trauma themselves, and at least one therapist has written of the healing power of this book. Though healing can take time, and the payoff is not perfect - certainly not a fairytale ending - people who have been hurt can try to trust again, and to believe that they can deserve happiness.
Do not read this book if you are expecting the style of McKinley's other novels, or if you want your fantasies to be escapism. Do read this book if the story of a woman who survives horror and finds herself through adversity can tell you something important, which I submit it can.