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.
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, emotional abuse, animal cruelty, bestiality, talk of self-harm/suicide.
by ELANA K. ARNOLD
Published on October 2, 2018 by Sky Pony Press
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Like any fairy tale, it begins with a princess who is saved by a prince. A dragon is slain, love is sealed, and so they lived happily ever after. But what happens in between?
The overarching question of this book is: was the damsel truly saved?
Damsel by Elana K. Arnold is a fascinating and deeply troubled little book. You might have already heard about how graphic this book can get which means that it is a very triggering read for many. For me though it was a reflection of the struggle, the confusion, and my own fight against abuse. Damsel is a book that is balances both the horrendously vivid portrayal of abuse & rape, along with the unseen & unspoken nature of it. I appreciated this because, often times, people assume abuse is just physical when in reality it is accompanied by vicious words and demeaning actions. The slow pacing of the book worked well to thicken the dark atmosphere needed in Damsel.
The narrative of Damsel, although from Ama’s perspective, is both aloof and personal. Her inability to recognize a life before her “rescue” is telling to trauma of an abuse survivor. [spoiler] For example, we learn that Ama is made human after being raped and is therefore, considered by Emory as his property. [spoiler] Living with abuse can make one forget about a world beyond it; identity and safety is stolen away with a single act but, as Elana wrote it, trying to remember those is a fight in itself.
THE INSIDOUS NATURE OF PRINCE CHARMING
“I saved you,” he said again – why did he keep saying that? She wondered – “and I will keep you safe.”
The maiden nodded as if she believed him.
Even from the first chapter, my red flags were raised when Emory said this. How many men have we come across who play the nice guy card expecting something in return? Emory asserts how good he is to Ama by telling her about the fate he saved from, trying to compliment her looks, building her dreams of being married and becoming queen.
Emory is embodiment of the “nice guy”, the Prince Charming, the saviour trope, that women are expected to believe in. He carries the traditional patriarchal views of women being property, and he constantly asserts this on Ama, first by claiming he saved her – from what though, Ama doesn’t knows – guilt tripping her so that she feels indebted to him.
THE COST OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER
“This is the way of being a woman, to carve away at herself, to fit herself to the task, but, also, to be able to carve herself in a different way, when a different shape is needed.”
I noticed that in Damsel, none of the women characters were fully developed. They were only shadows, solidified by their connection to the setting – the Queen Mother who, in spite of her rank did not rule, and her world revolved around her king and then her son, Fabiana and Tille whose loyalty is bound to the prince, and Ama who is expected to be subservient to the prince’s desires. Every woman in the book has shaped herself to a role, even the lynx kitten Ama takes in. According the world of Damsel, a woman’s importance is according to defined by her ability to serve men.
THE WILD ANIMAL AS A PARALLEL TO THE DAMSEL’S SOUL
I might be wrong about this but I absolutely loved how the author used the kitten lynx as a parallel to Ama’s emotions. Having lost its mother to Emory’s pickaxe, Ama begs for the kitten’s life and takes it in. Just like Ama the kitten has been cut off from its wild nature and is eventually forced to be tamed by Emory’s order, under the teaching of Pawlin, the falconer.
The lynx is named Sorrow and is with Ama everywhere she goes. Sorrow is a physical manifestation of Ama’s emotions – emotions which Ama struggles to show. [spoiler] For example, Sorrow being aggressive to Emory when he assaults Ama, or the kitten’s wilting as she is tamed. [spoiler] All these instances are embodiment of Ama’s conflicted thoughts [spoiler] right until she releases the kitten into the wild. This first action is Ama’s acceptance of her own nature. To rename the kitten Fury shows that Ama no longer accepts her passive place; she is no longer burned by sadness but has transformed her longing to desire to rebellion.[spoiler]
Damsel shows us that the fight for survival does not begin with a big action but with the manifestation of a thought –it may be the realization of the deceit, the abuse, or the acceptance that one will no longer be controlled – that will eventually be the key to Ama’s survival.
Related post RUNNING WITH THE WOLVES
THIS IS NOT A BOOK EVERYONE WILL ACCEPT
Just because I, as an abuse survivor, love this book and found solace in it, for others it can be triggering or not a good representation.
From my own experience, the feminist themes in this book are ugly and uncomfortable even. You cannot read through Damsel without feeling revolted and claustrophobic. Self-entitlement, power, and abuse from men coat the pages of this book. In it’s on way Damsel disrobes the “nice guy” phenomenon; in fact, I could say that the narrative is quite clear on showing how insidious these type of men can be. Damsel points out and shows us through Ama where to look when identifying predators.
Its unflinching honesty & female rage against traditional fairy-tales is what every woman needs to read about. Damsel is a brutal love letter to women everywhere; it is a demand to accept ourselves un-chiseled. It is a demand to cut away that which bends our spines. It is a demand to love whatever beast we hold inside so that we can let it loose on the right obstacles.
As a reader, I love women whose strengths do not lie in a sword or magic, but who chooses the toughest roads. I love my women who discard everything for uncertainty, who fight with their wit; scared women who make the difficult decisions, ugly women who embrace their worth, furious women who take and take, and, merciless women who are also compassionate.
And like every fairy tale Damsel is a fable with a moral at its end.
A woman’s acceptance of herself is a frightening ordeal that, often times, requires the death of something within herself.
I received an e-copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
If you would like something less darker than Damsel, but with a similar theme, check out my reviews for
Light-hearted fairytales or the darker ones? What is your favourite female-centric tropes in literature?
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