Synopsis: 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 brilliantly reimagined traditional fairy tale story of brave price who rescues a damsel in distress, over and over again. Behind the usual tropes of the fairy tale, we get layers of dark and uncomfortable truths, that if you are willing you can not even notice. Which is the beauty of this book, that gives you the story that disguises as a simple fairy tale, but is nothing but a fairytale.
Fantasy is designed to whisk you away to magical realms of spectacular beauty. Oh, how we long to go to these places ourselves…usually. You will sometimes get that rather gritty, overly realistic fairy tale romp that leaves you thinking, “Visit Westeros? Emm… Pass.” The world of Damsel is much the same. The whole story is an uncomfortable journey that follows a naive ‘Damsel’, Ama, as she slowly navigates a centuries-old tradition upheld by a purely patriarchal kingdom. The good news is that you’re supposed to be uncomfortable. The focus of this narrative lies not in the world, but in Ama’s role as a Damsel and her interactions with those around her. It’s an examination of a corrosive relationship, of a woman caught in a kingdom that’s conspired to rob her of her will and freedom. As the reader, you are forced to suffer along with her but also rise with her when the time comes. This was an interesting retelling of a classic happily-ever-after where the rescued Damsel is finally given a brain and a voice of her own.
Arnold’s writing is not graphic, despite some of the other reviews I’ve read—it is evocative, with prose that’s careful to attend to many different senses, which can sometimes feel more intense than if it were descriptively graphic. Whatever Ama feels, the reader feels. And in this book that means a sense of foreboding, a creeping dread, the absolute knowledge of your own powerlessness.
Finally, while this is being shelved as YA, I would advise caution to younger readers due to the content and nature of the novel. There are darkly fantastic tales and then there is simply dark tales.