Considering the sometimes tortuous path of traditional publishing, DAMSEL by Elana K. Arnold debuts precisely as the narratives we tell about sexuality and power have come under close examination.
DAMSEL exposes the undercurrents of violence/power/sexuality in established narratives while (mostly) avoiding feeling too heavy-handed. Particularly considering this is a YA novel, DAMSEL may be the first time that many readers have come across this topic in a way that isn’t explicitly didactic while still providing teens with a way to grapple with the discomforting questions that fairy tales elicit.
DAMSEL is not a re-telling of a specific fairy tale, but explores an ur-fairy tale narrative: the prince slays a dragon, rescues a damsel, and returns home to his kingdom, now worthy of being a king. The prince in question is Prince Emory of Harding, whose father’s premature death means that he must become the youngest prince in generations to attempt for the throne.
To do so, Emory must to slay the dragon that lives in the castle by the sea. While most other princes have at least another decade to prepare, Emory is confident that he will triumph despite having been carefully kept from learning too much about dragons during his youth.
When Ama wakes up, she has no memories of her past. Instead, she only knows what Emory tells her–that he has just rescued her from a terrible dragon and that her name is Ama. He gives her clothes to wear and informs her that she is to be his bride.
Without memories, clothes, or kin to return to, Ama is wholly dependent on Emory and his whims. After all, as he repeatedly points out, he saved her life. As they travel together back to the kingdom of Harding and prepare for their upcoming nuptials, Ama’s unease grows in parallel with her understanding of Emory’s expectation that she owes him in her smiles, her obedience, and her body.
Ama must fight for her body and mind in a world that feels perpetually set against her and her increasing sense that there is more to her own story than anyone will say.
Arnold’s style deliberately mimics some of the cadences of older fairy tales. Her prose is vivid and brings a richness to a story that might otherwise fall flat. The forcefulness of her prose allows her to use the short chapters–almost scenes–for maximum impact. It also helps her develop Ama’s interiority, which is particularly important as her POV is the one through which the reader processes most of the incidents that occur. While Ama lacks a strong sense of self due to her obliterated/missing past, Arnold is deft enough that even the lack of a past helps characterize Ama instead of making her a mere cipher.
Fairy tales, especially extended ones, can be difficult to sustain because the plot is pre-ordained in many ways. Arnold’s storytelling is compelling and she weaves enough mystery and doubt into the fabric of the tale that the ending never feels entirely certain.
Psycho-sexual power games are a rich source of material and it’s not a question of if there’s a novel’s worth of material here, but is more whether or not Arnold succeeds in sustaining reader interest as she investigates those dynamics over the course of the novel. While DAMSEL occasionally becomes a little one-note, I think the longer format succeeds and allows Arnold to develop her themes in a nuanced way, including Ama’s own struggle with the control she has over her servants and a pet lynx that she adopts.
So, if you walked into a bookstore and picked this book up, expecting a traditional fairy tale, would you be disappointed? I don’t think so–DAMSEL is clearly a fairy tale, even if the lessons about sex and power come early and fast. It’s disturbing to see the assumptions behind tropes exposed and Arnold’s focus on that discomfort is persistent throughout.
Revisionist fairy tales will always be a part of speculative fiction, even though they may wax and wane in popularity. Fairy tales reflect the anxieties of their age and DAMSEL is no exception, although Arnold’s strong prose and deft narrative hand set it apart from the crowd.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: A little swearing
- Violence: Some violence against animals
- Sex: Yes--explicitly discussed and some sex acts depicted. The threat of sexual abuse is constantly present.