Review: Damsel by Elana K. Arnolds

In Elana K. Arnold’s latest novel, Damsel (published October 2018), Arnold continues her exploration of feminism in YA literature, this time within the fantasy genre. In the novel, Arnold unpacks the heavy issues of objectification and patriarchal oppression that arise from and within the trope of the fantasy damsel in distress. Extremely dark at points, though justifiably so given the material, the text evolves as an intense character study of a single damsel, taken from a dragon’s lair by a handsome prince to be his queen.

Ama wakes in the arms of handsome prince Emory, who tells her he has rescued her from a dragon. Moreover, he explains that he has been sent to bring her back and marry her according to a prophecy in his city, Harding. Even his own father once rescued a damsel, who became Emory’s mother. With no memories of her past, she believes him and agrees to follow him home to his castle. At the castle, however, memories begin to surface, memories that don’t agree with Emory’s story, as Ama navigates her role as queen and betrothed. Moreover, Emory begins to behave not so charmingly, calling his identity into question as well as her own.

The novel itself is as split as its characters. That is, it is both trying to be a fantasy novel, while also attempting to explicitly comment on Western fantasy novels and society in general. The result is a compelling, and definitely fresh, read, but one that too often feels uneven and more of an allegory than a fleshed story. For instance, Ama is framed as the typical damsel, obviously, who represents how women are subjugated and made into what they are not, in doing so losing their brilliance and “fire.” Because Arnold wants this metaphor to be clear, Ama is often given broad dialogue and behaviors, with very little consistency among them (at one instance she is collected under pressure, another she weeps uncontrollably, and another she acts with unrestrained anger). This is not to say that characters, and specifically female characters, cannot exhibit a wide spectrum of reactions and emotions. However, Arnold does not give enough insight into why Ama behaves the way she does in each case, because the more fleshed out Ama becomes, the seemingly harder it is to have her represent the fantasy everywoman. However, she still must be a character and subject to the context of the story, so she has enough details and characteristics to keep her from pure allegory. The effect of this is the reader is never able to attach themselves to Ama, who becomes both too one-dimensional to empathize with and too specific to seem like a mythical or storybook character, who can clearly stand for morals and ideologies.

The writing is accessible and generally effective, primarily mimicking the clear-cut voice of knight’s tales and the like. This allows the novel to move quickly and makes the events of the book clear to the reader. However, at times Arnold seems to be using the writing to hit the themes and messages of the story over the head of the reader, so to speak. To elaborate, every hint towards an issue like sexism feels so obvious that the reader feels more like she or he is being lectured rather than being led through a story. The same stands for the plot lines; for example, without spoiling anything, one twist feels so obvious that in reading it I was baffled it was actually treated like a twist. Nevertheless, there is certainly charm in the straightforward writing, and the world of the fantasy is conveyed quite elegantly as both heightened and hyper-gritty. Additionally, Arnold shows a distinct proficiency in writing the moments between the female characters, which are some of the richest and well-crafted sections of the novel, along with being examples of her dialogue at its best (though it is generally good throughout).

The final important aspect of the novel is its maturity. Even within the first few pages, this novel very graphically shows sex and violence (there are chapter-spanning scenes of both). It does not shy away from swearing, either. Indeed, it is surprising to me that it is not considered adult fiction. Therefore, I would recommend this novel for older teens (16 years old at the very least) who enjoy fantasy and want to see tropes subverted, albeit in an imperfect way.

Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Self-Harm, Animal Abuse, Rape, Mental Abuse, and Suicide

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