book review: damsel by elana k. arnold

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold
Balzer + Bray, 256 pp.
Published October 2, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this title from the publisher for review consideration. This did not inform or influence my opinion in any way.

The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

Damsel is a beautifully crafted allegory, a feminist reinterpretation of the oldest, most familiar archetypes that crackles and sparks across the page. Arnold does not re-tell the story of a rescued damsel so much as she reclaims it, working within the basic structure of childhood fables to better dismantle them from the inside out. She does so with a tack that veers out of the waters of young adult fiction and into adult fantasy, at times. The complex ideas lurking just behind her straightforward language—and the sometimes violent events that develop them—may turn away readers in search of a straightforward, accessible fairy tale. This is a novel worth working for, however, even when the content proves challenging.

While Ama's personal development hinges on a dramatic revelation, the reader has plenty of cause to suspect it long before Ama puzzles it out. Rather than spoil the story, this foresight allows one to settle in, get comfortable—or uncomfortable, as the case may be—and hone in on the escalating tensions between Ama, Prince Emory, and the other members of court. Only one person, the queen mother, who arrived in Harding in similar fashion, exhibits any genuine sympathy for Ama. Even so, it comes tinged with a patience born of the inevitable: what has been will always be, so the new princess had best get used to it, no matter how difficult.

Ama herself is both ancient and new-formed. When she awakens astride the prince's horse it is without memory or any sense of self, although words and concepts spring into her mind, fully formed, as the need arises. This guiding force suggests something primeval lurking beneath her curious amnesia, more than just the overwhelming expectations of the kingdom of Harding. Exactly what this shadowy influence is and how it's related to Ama is best discovered as the novel unfolds.

This central mystery of identity plays out against a backdrop that repeatedly circles back to the issues of consent and independence. Rather than grant Ama meta-awareness and modern ideas about a woman's role in society, effectively isolating her from the narrative, Arnold renders her utterly uninformed about the stereotype those around her expect her to fulfill. With a blank slate of memory, Ama questions the "damsel-in-distress" narrative on its most fundamental levels. As the physical and psychological abuse by Emory increases by degrees, Ama does more than break free of the bonds of expectation. She rejects them entirely, with a spectacular final chapter that violently drives home her growth as a human, rather than some bauble in a prince's story.

Some reviewers have noted that Damsel is a poor fit for the YA genre, often referencing its mature subject matter. Abuse and controlling behavior both factor significantly into Ama's life in Harding and, although their description is never salacious, those topics could prove equally upsetting to teen and adult readers. Personally, I think these themes make reading Damsel a personal judgment call for any reader regardless of their age. It's also equally important to keep in mind the allegorical nature of Arnold's story, which demands reader engagement and encourages discussion. While far from a fluffy beach read, Damsel is the sharp counterpoint to fairy tales and fables that the fantasy genre sorely needs. It's challenging and beautiful; dark and empowering; and, for those willing to undertake the journey, immensely rewarding in every way.


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