Despite the slightly rough beginning, DAMSEL is an incredibly dark story that feels YA in the way that THE POPPY WAR did, in that only the writing and the age of the characters are "young": everything else is incredibly disturbing. In this world, princes become kings by rescuing damsels from dragons. In the beginning of the book, we see Prince Emory challenging the dragon in its lair, but just before the final confrontation, the narrative changes and we are with a nameless girl that Emory christens "Ama" who awakens in the Prince's arms not knowing who she is or what has happened. All she knows is what Prince Emory tells her: that he saved her, and their destinies belong to each other.
DAMSEL explores so many unpleasant subjects: the sexism of classic fairytales, the cyclical nature of abuse, the selfish cruelty of "taming" something wild to make it your own, seeking independence and flouting convention, and courting danger to find freedom. It's clear from the beginning that Emory is not exactly Prince Charming. His cruelty to animals (one in particular was basically Bambi all over again and nearly made me cry), his objectification of women, and utterly self-serving nature make him odious... and yet, we can see why people are attracted to him: he is good-looking and he has power, and the fear he instills in people make it incredibly unhealthy to cross him.
Reading this book made me think of several different stories. THE LITTLE PRINCE (for the motifs on what it means to be tame vs. free), THE SHAPE-CHANGER'S WIFE (a woman who is captive to a cruel man's passions, and a meditation on changing the nature of things without a care for their hearts), and JUST ELLA (another story where the happily-ever-after really isn't all that happy, especially for headstrong princesses). There's also a little bit of THE HANDMAID'S TALE in here, in that Ama's situation, and the situation of the other women's lives in the castle, is an exploration of institutionalized sexism taken too far. It wasn't always an easy read (I skimmed a few portions, fearing they wouldn't turn out all right-- but they usually exceeded by expectations, cue sigh of relief).
My favorite part of the book was probably Sorrow, Ama's pet lynx kitten, and the disturbing comparisons in the narrative between "taming" a woman and a wild creature. This is an analogy that is in many books, and one in particular that struck me was E.M. Hull's THE SHEIK, a story about another woman taken as a captive bride, where she is broken as swiftly and without mercy as the wild stallions her captor breeds and keeps as pets-- and, like her, he isn't afraid to destroy them if they don't obey. Unlike Emory, Ama eventually learns that there is no pleasure to be had in taking something beautiful and a little wild, and robbing it of the qualities that made it the creature that it was.
I could gush about this story for another couple pages or so, but I think I need to rein myself in before I spoil anything. If you're a fan of authors like Tanith Lee or Angela Carter, I think you'll really enjoy this book. Elana K. Arnold is an author who isn't afraid to take risks with her narrative or her prose, and I know I'm going to be haunted by this story, and its characters, for a while.
5 out of 5 stars