Damsel by Elana K. Arnold (DRC): A Hard-Hitting Feminist Fantasy That Actually Embodies the Word “Feminist”

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5 stars

When the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon and knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Both return kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

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TW: rape, self-harm, abuse, animal abuse, graphic violence, bestiality

This is not a book for everyone, but it was the book for me.

I can feel all the people cringing away from this book, and know that you don’t have to read it, and no one will fault you for not reading it. I can feel all the DNFs coming this way, as it’s a very graphic book marketed towards the YA audience, and DNFing is a completely valid thing to do.

As you can see by the long list of trigger warnings, this can be very dark and VERY surprising if you’re unprepared. Right off the bat, I say this book is for 16+, mayyybe 15+. I wouldn’t really hand this to a freshman.

I’m 17, and although I never struggled with reading the content and it’s graphic scenes, nor did I ever feel tangible, physical discomfort, it was still very emotionally impactful. (I’ve also never had personal experience with any of the TWs, which is largely why.)

Because this is a powerful, powerful book, hidden under layers and layers of anger and hurt and pain. It’s ugly, it’s twisted, and it’s not something everyone can love.

But it was something I loved.

Right off from the start, there were so many subtle hints dropped about Prince Emory and how he’s a terrible person and basically the epitome of the patriarchy. In retrospect, the way it was done is completely genius in the way it was done and Arnold is AMAZING.

Even in chapter one, you can start seeing the true nature of Emory’s character and how he begins to “brainwash” Ama into following his rules and acting how he wants her to act.

This is shown in the very act of naming her Ama, in the way he kills the lynx, in the way he intentionally leaves information out, in the description of his first kill, in how he pees all over the mountain top and stakes his claim.

The signs are everywhere. And it builds and builds and builds into this really strong and devastating (yet quietly triumphant) story.

There’s genuinely nothing happy about this story (except those couple lines at the end) and it is dark and twisted and ugly and gruesome and overall, really depressing. But it’s the truth, and I found a strong sense of triumph about how the ugliness of man was exposed in a way that emphasizes the flaws of fictional tales from our past (see: Sleeping Beauty).

Arnold wrote it really well, and it felt like a fable was being read to you with the luscious descriptions and purposeful narration. The atmosphere was just so on point and extremely heavy I wanted to cry reading the first few pages even though nothing was really happening and off the atmosphere (and some of the hints about Emory) alone.

It’s how Damsel manages to really grab at your heart that I found to be this book’s best quality. For many other writers, telling this tale would end up just being sad and depressing and overall a bring-everyone-down (see: I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter). But the way Arnold writes it makes everything so stark and shocking and yet truthful and that’s really what I felt redeemed this book.

I’ve heard so many women say that they almost didn’t believe it happened and it still doesn’t really register the sheer significance of the acts that were committed against them. (see: Maureen Johnson’s thread on her experience & how it hasn’t really registered for her), and this is what Damsel does in a way.

Damsel exposes all the things that we’ve somehow become conditioned to accept as nearly normal, and it shows us that this is not right and that society and the people in society need to change.

She shows us just how ugly we humans are, and in a way, how the princes in our fairytales are so similar to Emory. Sure, they can be charming, but they’ve also probably never worked for equality in any of the fairy tales, either.

Damsel lets us explore the gruesome yet true side of humanity and oppression in a way that is the most horrifying in the way that it rings true.

It’s a social commentary of our real world. It’s terrifying and disgusting and gruesome but it’s the truth for so many people out there.

If you’re looking for a rallying tale of women taking down an oppressive system, find something else to read. But if you’re looking for a stark and true commentary on the realities of what women have gone through and what they continue to go through, keep reading.

I want to end my review with this quote from the author:

Damsel is about waking up female in a man’s world. It’s about power, and abuses of power by powerful men. It’s about secrets. It’s about pride, and anger, and action. I put my anger into this book, and I surprised myself with what my anger and I created.”

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I do want to talk about the graphicness of this story and why I felt like even though it is really really graphic and has a high potential for triggers, it also doesn’t necessarily need to NOT be marketed as YA.

I get that it’s a lot of really graphic content and I wouldn’t want a 13 year old picking it up. But as a teen myself, I’ve seen so many adults talk about how this doesn’t really belong in YA and how it’s too much, and I think this isn’t completely true.

First, if you’re triggered by it, you shouldn’t be picking it up, regardless of age.

And yes, it doesn’t belong in lower YA. But I feel like it’s something that needs to be saidDamsel is a story that demands to be told, and if we tell it to an adult audience, the message will never really travel connect.

I feel like the triggers had a purpose and they really contributed to this story. It wasn’t just random throwing around rape scenes for the fun of it. It was purposeful. It has a meaning.

And I personally think that Damsel would have been called out regardless of what age it was marketed for. I think people would still clamor about it and say that it’s too much, and although it is too much for some people, it’s still a really important story to tell.

But I also acknowledge that although some teens like me can handle this type of content and still appreciate the huge consequences, others can’t–even if they haven’t had any personal experience with the triggers.

Either way, what’s done is done, and this book is almost published. Just wanted to add my two cents in.

Thank you so much to Harper Collins & Edelweiss for providing me with a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review!

much love, vicky

Have you read Damsel? What do you think about the discussion on who it should be marketed to?

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14 thoughts on “Damsel by Elana K. Arnold (DRC): A Hard-Hitting Feminist Fantasy That Actually Embodies the Word “Feminist”

  1. *Grabs box of tissues before reading

    Thank you for this review! We are really excited to read this one, but know that it isn’t for everyone and we may have to put it aside if it gets to be too much. Totally agree with you that regardless of a YA/Adult designation, some topics need to be addressed. Most of the time it’s up to publishers to determine where they fall and how they are marketed anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get that! And yeah, it’s really up to the publishers. If they say “change the ages” the author almost always changes the ages (I’ve known this to happen). I know the author can’t change it, and honestly I don’t really mind so long as there’s a trigger warning at the beginning or somewhere visible.

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  2. This is such a wonderful review – as always, you always write some of the best reviews, really. I am so happy to hear you enjoyed this book so much and thought it was such an important read, too. I think I will stay away from this one because of the trigger warnings, that seems a bit too much for me, but I’m happy you enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing this 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AHHH MARIE YOU’RE TOO SWEET mwah

      And that’s totally okay! It’s definitely not required reading or anything lol, and although it is super important, you can still get the message from so many other places. This is just one way women’s story is being told, and there are so many different feminist fantasies out there for you to love ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree – there are some fantasies that would be less triggering that I could read, so I’m glad. And I’m still really happy that one works out well for you and so many other readers 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally get that! When/if you read it, I hope you end up loving it, Kaleena! It’s definitely a heavy read, so read it when it’s good for you!

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    1. AHHH YAY! I really hope you do! I know people who were warned and said people are making it sound heavier than it is, so I feel like if you go into it actually KNOWING that the triggers will occur like I did, it’s not as…brutally jarring? Still impactful, but not a “wtf is this book WHO WOULD GIVE THIS TO TEENS” sort of reaction.

      Good luck! I’m crossing my fingers this is a new favorite for you too ❤

      Liked by 1 person

    1. ahhh omg THANK YOU DESTINY!!! I feel like if we wait to tell teens about this kind of stuff until they’re adults, it’s too late.

      there should be triggers, but this also shouldn’t stop us from actively promoting this book to teens, I think.

      so glad you loved this too!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been hesitant to read this because of all the muchness I’ve heard about being in this book. However, I really trust your reviews and given how much thought you put into this one, the explanation regarding the content of Damsel, I think I may well pick it up after all. Thank you for putting such care into reviewing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a lot and if you are going to read, it may help to take a few breaks in between. Even the first chapter is *steeped* with Emory’s aggressiveness (see: pee scene) and so I’d definitely suggest using that as a measure of whether or not you’ll end up enjoying it!

      I do hope you love it, though! It’s a very different book and it’s very much shocking and grotesque, but underlying it all I feel like there’s a lot of really important messages to deconstruct ❤

      Like

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