DAMSEL by Elana K Arnold
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It is Emory’s destiny to kill a dragon and rescue a damsel. Without achieving this task, he cannot become king. Though Emory does not feel ready when his father dies, he has no choice but to travel to the gray land and hunt a dragon and its damsel. He succeeds on his quest, and rides home triumphant, his damsel before him in the saddle. But the damsel has no memory of the event. She has no memories at all before waking on Emory’s horse. He assures her that he “saved her,” informs her that she is to be his bride, and gives her the name “Ama.” But Ama is not sure how she feels about this hunter, her savior. And as she struggles to fit into the roles prescribe to her, she begins to wonder about her past and whether or not she has any control over her future.
I would not necessarily call this novel YA. Not that teen readers couldn’t enjoy it, certainly, and I’m sure many do, but it read more like adult allegorical fantasy to me. Regardless of your age, be warned of graphic violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical).
Because of the allegorical nature of the story, the “twist” is very obvious from early on, and so what drives the plot forward is not a question of where Ama came from/what “mysterious” past she has forgotten, and more the suspense of not knowing exactly how it will end. (I mean, we can hope that Ama will find a happy or at least less-miserable ending, but we don’t know what that will be.) Though there’s an old quip that the purpose of a novel is to create a compelling main character and then find the best ways to torture him/her/them, this novel is particularly torturous. Ama is forced to suffer until she must break one way or the other–either become a rabbit or a cat, as one character puts it.
I think the key to enjoying this novel would be first to savor the gorgeous prose. And second to remember that it is allegory. All characters are (I believe intentionally) underdeveloped. The point of the novel is to turn fairytale traditions on their heads (especially the trope of the prince earning a maiden’s “hand” in marriage by “saving her,” often by some form of sexual/romantic act like a kiss or–as in the original Sleeping Beauty fairytale–rape), and with this purpose in mind it’s the symmetry of actions that becomes important. Predator/prey relationships feature throughout with human characters (Ama in particular) switching between the two groups. There are some reviewers who have felt the ending is arbitrary. I disagree. I won’t spoil it (insofar as it isn’t obvious) but the groundwork is laid for the specific moment even before Emory fights the dragon at the beginning. Again, it’s all about the parallels in this story. Hunter and hunted. Predator and prey.
As much as I do believe the book is well-written, I cannot think of a teenager to whom I would recommend it. I’m not saying that teen isn’t out there, but I’d have to know for certain that she/he/they were not a survivor of sexual violence or abuse of any kind. Full disclosure, I had to stop about 1/2 of the way through and just skimmed to the ending because the graphic violence and (particularly the emotional) abuse was too much for me. And while I know that some books are more disturbing to adults than to children because we bring a different set of experiences to them (e.g. The Giver as traumatizing for parents but not for kids who don’t have babies of their own), that is not the case with this novel. Arnold intends all readers to be deeply disturbed; if you’re not disturbed, you missed the point. It’s a well-crafted book, but proceed with caution–especially when recommending it to others.