Damsel: A disturbing feminist allegory in fairy tale form

Damsel by Elana K. Arnold YA fantasy book reviewsDamsel by Elana K. Arnold YA fantasy book reviewsDamsel by Elana K. Arnold

Damsel
(2018) has an absolutely gorgeous cover, one of the loveliest I’ve seen, with a glowing title wound about with vines, bleeding hearts and other flowers. But on closer examination there’s something just a little bit off about the cover image. An anatomically correct heart. A golden spur with a myriad of sharp points. A dragon’s pointed tail. It’s a bit disturbing. And it’s an apt metaphor for the contents of Elana K. Arnold’s book, where the fairy-tale details initially mask an allegorical story that is far, far darker.

Prince Emory is on a quest, a traditional rite of passage in his kingdom: He is traveling to the gray lands to conquer a dragon, rescue a beautiful young damsel, and bring her back to his kingdom to be his wife, as his father and forefathers have done before him. The hazards of his journey to the dragon’s lair and his tension-filled battle with the dragon are related in detail, until the story of the fight abruptly ends mid-scene.

Suddenly we shift forward in time and to the young maiden’s point of view: She awakens to find herself in Emory’s arms, riding home with him on his horse. She has no idea who she is, no prior memories except vague shadows. Emory explains to her that he rescued her from a dragon, and that they are each other’s destiny.

“I saved you,” he said again ― Why did he keep saying that? she wondered ― “and I will keep you safe.”

Elana K. Arnold

Elana K. Arnold

 

The maiden nodded as if she believed him. Did she? Perhaps. It did not matter if she believed him. What she believed would change nothing.

Since she remembers nothing, he gives her the name of Ama (“A woman’s name should begin with an open sound, don’t you think?”). They return to Emory’s castle, where Ama is pampered but unhappy, as everyone around her cheerfully prepares for her wedding to Emory, but it’s clear her concerns and point of view aren’t respected. It’s a man’s world where women are subservient, and despite some kindnesses, Emory uses Ama for his own desires and purposes, and everyone expects compliance from Ama … and in fact from all women, excepting perhaps the queen mother.

Damsel is a dark allegory about male domination of women (both sexually and in other ways) dressed as a fairy tale. It begins with a few uncomfortable details ― Emory sleeping with various castle servants, Emory’s father (who died shortly before the story begins) taking him on a rather bloodthirsty hunt ― but gets gradually more intolerable for Ama and for the reader as the story progresses. Women need to obey, to be attractive even if it’s unpleasant, to bury their own feelings and desires for the convenience of men, to give up freedom and accept societal bondage. The ending is violent and cathartic, but there’s a lot of ugliness to wade through before you get there.

I don’t recall there being any admirable male characters in the pages of this book, and the allegory is not a subtle one, at all. It’s a message novel, a story told to make a point. I didn’t care for it, but it will resonate with a lot of readers. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado deals with similar issues in a more interesting and literary way, for my money.

Damsel is marketed as a YA novel, but there’s explicit sexual content, on top of the disturbing world it creates. I definitely would not recommend it for younger teens. Older readers may appreciate the feminist message in this allegorical fantasy, but understand that it’s a story designed to make readers distressed and angry.

Published in October 2018. *A 2018 Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book* A dark, twisted, unforgettable fairy tale from Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of. The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: When the king dies, his son the prince 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, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale. As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her, but around her, now, and closing in.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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3 comments

  1. I’ve been really tempted to read this–the cover is definitely tantalizing!

    • It wasn’t my cuppa tea, but for other readers this might be a great read, as long as you understand the kind of story this is and you’re game for that. I think the cover could be misleading. If you’re still interested, e-mail me — I have a nice hardback copy that will be looking for a good home. ;)

      • I can…sometimes be in the mood for that kind of book, and I had already gotten the gist from somewhere. Maybe Goodreads?

        I’m taking a lit class right now that’s bombarding me with books, but I’ll keep you in mind! :D

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