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.
Rating: ♡♡♡ 1/2
We’ve all heard the same story dozens of times throughout our childhood. A dashing prince. A terrifying dragon to slay. And of course, to complete the tale, a beautiful damsel in need of rescue.
However, this was quite unlike any other YA fairy tale retelling I’ve read before. It’s dark, overtly graphic, and takes place in an intensely, disturbingly patriarchal fantasy world. Arnold does a fantastic job of pointing out the problematic nature of the damsel-in-distress trope by twisting and exaggerating its sexist elements—sometimes to the point where it feels like the message is being pounded into your head with a brick.
“Acceptance, Ama. That is woman’s greatest strength, you know. The power to accept that which must fill her.”
Damsel is NOT a lighthearted fairy-tale romance. This book is dark. It’s harrowing. It speaks to the pain, struggle, and loss that countless young women endure as they carve their way through a world dominated by men. In a way, it resembles Grimm’s original, more grotesque tales, the kind in which girls step on knives for the sake of true love and cut off their heels to catch the eye of a prince.
For a fantasy, Damsel isn’t exactly what I would call action-packed—quite the opposite, really. It’s generally predictable and rather slow-paced, with heavy-handed foreshadowing that allows even the densest of people (aka me) to understand how the plot will unfold. But in this case, the slower pace actually complements the introspective nature of Ama’s emotional journey as she attempts to piece together fragments of her past life.
(Also, DRAGONS. Dragons are always wonderful to read about.)
Death is the one truth.
It’s very uniquely written—musical, almost—but different enough that it may not be every reader’s cup of tea. Here’s a snippet to hopefully let you know what the writing style is like: “When he struck it, a tree should fall. That is what trees do. That is what they had always done, trees. It was their duty. But these last trees would not fall.” (So. Many. Trees.)
Also, I’m just including this because I found it funny: “Emory considered himself to be horselike in all the best ways.” Like. Truly a compliment of the highest order.
I get the feeling that Arnold meant this as scathing satire of misogynistic fairy tales, and her approach isn’t exactly subtle. Like I said before, she’s basically pounding it over our heads with a brick. Also, this is definitely not a relationship-driven story, so if you look for lovingly fleshed-out romances or friendships in your fantasy reads, you probably won’t find that here.
One larger concern I have—and many other reviewers have already mentioned this—is that the subject matter is on the more mature side, considering it’s being marketed as YA. The graphic nature of the writing, coupled with the extreme amount of triggers, may not be suitable for some younger readers. (I mean, I personally started reading YA when I was around 9 or 10, and I know for a fact that I would be quite, quite traumatized after reading this at that age.) This book will undoubtedly be polarizing amongst many readers, and I genuinely believe that this book would be much better received if it was marketed towards adults.
This is how he likes me best… when I am in need of rescue.
To give you a better picture, this book is less like Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a Snow White retelling, and more like Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty with feminist twists.
I’m not going to lie—reading this book wasn’t exactly fun. It’s uncomfortable, it’s mind-gripping, it makes you feel troubled and sad and furious. But it’s also incredibly compelling, with a strong, empowering conclusion and an even stronger message.
Before I end this review, I have to mention this beautifully written piece that truly resonated with me and will hopefully clarify the author’s intent:
Author’s Note: Damsel is about waking up female in a man’s world. It’s about power, and abuses of power by powerful men. It’s about secrets. It’s about pride, and anger, and action. I put my anger into this book, and I surprised myself with what my anger and I created.
TW: Sexual assault, emotional abuse, animal cruelty, bestiality, talk of self-harm/suicide.
Recommended for: Older/mature YA readers. | Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. All quotes above are from an uncorrected galley and are subject to change in the final publication.
Do you prefer lighthearted fairy tale retellings or dark fantasy ones? If you’ve read it, why do you think this was targeted towards a YA audience? (Also who’s your favorite Disney princess? <3)