Review: DAMSEL by Elana K. Arnold

Publisher: Balzar + Bray (HarperCollins)
Page Count: 308
Release Date: October 2nd, 2018
Rating: 3/5 stars

damsel_jktFairy tales exist in a dichotomy.  They can be joyful or dark. The stuff of dreams or the stuff of nightmares.  Disney or Grimm.  They contain a host of archetypes which offer a veritable treasure trove of characters and settings for authors to use for experimentation, to play to or against audiences expectations.  Such is the case in DAMSEL, where the author has taken the trope of “prince slays dragon and rescues damsel” and uses it to tell a tale that explores gender roles and relationships, and the subtle way we deceive ourselves into believing that everything is normal.  While the idea is interesting, it was not ultimately executed in a way I found compelling.

In the kingdom of Harding, there is a tradition as old as time.  When the king dies, the prince must journey to a distant castle, where he will destroy a dragon and rescue a damsel.  He will bring back that damsel to be his queen, and she will bear him a son. Ama is the newest damsel, and while she is happy to have been rescued by this handsome young man, she’s a little disconcerted that she has no memory of her life before that rescue. As the day of her wedding grows closer, Ama must decide if she will docilely submit to her role as all other damsels have before her, or if she will finally unwrap the mystery behind the kingdom.

The writing of DAMSEL does have a nice poetry to it, especially when it comes to capturing Ama’s increasing listlessness as she is denied anything outside the role of wife or child bearer.  As the weather turns colder, so too does Ana’s joy and energy.  Ama is young woman trying to find her place, and she’s been taught in her few short days of memory that Prince Emory has rescued her and she must therefore make him happy in all areas, from her demeanor towards Emory to his desire for sex, frequently at the expense of all of her other feelings. But because Ama only has a few days of memory, she can’t help but question why things are the way they are, a question which confuses those who grown up in this kingdom and have never thought of a different way of life.

DAMSEL is an instance where it feels like the story would have benefited from being shorter.  The author does a good job of capturing the dynamics in emotionally abusive relationships, the justifications and the lies people tell themselves to ignore controlling or temperamental spouses.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the book is Ama passively accepting her role in the relationship.  She does not truly act until the final pages, and when she does it is so jarringly out of tone with the rest of the book that the finale doesn’t stick the landing.  The abrupt ending to the story may have worked in a novella or a fairy tale, but here it just left me blinking in surprise.

I will say that I did find myself reading through this tale at a fairly brisk clip, but in the end I realized it was because I kept expecting something monumental to happen just around the corner. Despite its beautiful descriptions, this just wasn’t a nuanced enough tale for the message the author was trying to convey.


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