Book: “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold
Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, October 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss
Book Description: 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.
Review: Oof, this is going to be a tricky one. Even now, starting out this review, I’m not really sure if my thoughts and feelings on this book are fully formed. I guess we’ll just see where the words take me!
The description of this book lays out a fairly typically fantasy story: a princess is rescued from a dragon by a handsome prince. But something is not right. She doesn’t remember her time before the rescue and the prince may not be what he seems. However, this is as it always has been. Damsels being rescued, going on to be Queens and mothers of princes themselves.
Between the book description that, while fairly typical, does lay the groundwork for some type of subversion of this typical fairtyale storyline, and the beautiful, flowery cover art, I went into this book with a certain set of expectations. While I didn’t expect it to play out along typical lines (I was fairly sure that she wouldn’t end up with said prince, for example), I wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness that was introduced in this book and I do have some qualms about certain topics’ sudden appearances.
But the book did have some steady points in its favor, and I want to cover those before I get into the parts that gave me pause. For one, the writing is excellent and I immediately felt drawn into the story. Ama herself doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters and yet I was still fully invested, which speaks again to the strength of the writing. And once Ama is introduced, she was a very cheer-worthy heroine. I was immediately drawn to her story and felt the same fears, confusion, and bewilderment that she experiences. The reader, too, doesn’t know her history, so while she looks for answers, we’re right there with her. But this same attachment to her made other parts of the book incredibly hard to read.
As I said, the description sets the story up to be a subversion of the traditional tale, however, I was not prepared for how completely dark and mature some of the themes and topics became in this book. The beautiful cover, light and fluffy, also belied these dark and heavy themes. I could probably write an entire post on its own discussing my complicated feelings about trigger warnings for books (I generally feel that this idea has been taken too far given the obviousness of the fact that there are a million people out there with a million life experiences and no novel can anticipate all of their reactions to any given story), but this book does serve as an example of why some type of warning might be necessary for certain topics.
Nothing about the description, cover, or classification (YA) of this book would give an indication that this book would dive so heavily into topics that can be very hard for many readers, regardless of their age. Specifically for this book, the topic of sexual assault. And this is by no means the only dark subject matter introduced. There are some tough scenes dealing with animal cruelty and a weird moment in the end that verges on bestiality? I’m not even sure how to qualify that scene. I’m a librarian, so I am by no means saying that these topics shouldn’t appear in books or even that there is a reading level that should be maintained for exposure to them (that is between any given reader and his/her parents, depending). But I do think that more needs to be done to prep readers in what they are picking up. With its cover and light description, I could see middle grade readers thinking this would be a good read for them and then being very taken off guard with the graphic nature of the tale.
I also struggled with the ending of the story. While Ama’s own tale comes to a satisfying conclusion, it is a very brief scene that I’m not convinced fully balances out all of the awfulness that happened before. What’s more, the world that is set up is one where this type of abuse has been happening forever and is by no means limited to the Damsels, though theirs is a unique version of it. So while Ama gets her revenge in the end, there is really no resolution for the world itself and the other women living in it. This heavily dampened any feelings of satisfaction that came from her act of defiance.
In the end, while I did enjoy aspects of the book, I’m not convinced that the darker topics were completely earned or necessary (at least not as the many times they’re repeated throughout the story). And my larger concern is that the book does nothing to warn readers what they are getting when they pick it up. We all know I love dark fairytales, but if a story is going to get this dark, more needs to be done with the marketing to prep unsuspecting readers. I’m not sure what the real answer to that is, but I know that this book was shocking for me to read, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to others without giving them some fair warnings of its subject matter.
Rating 5: I have to give this book a middle-of-the-road rating. I liked Ama and the writing was strong, but the book was incredibly dark and I’m not sure its graphic nature was either necessary or resolved in the end.
“Damsel” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”
Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!