Elana K. Arnold’s latest novel delves into a historical fantasy world with striking similarities to our own
I vividly remember standing in my public library’s young adult section as a teenager, scanning the books’ spines as I searched for yet another story about courageous heroes on the brink of coming of age, thrust into leadership roles in the midst of dystopian realities. More often than not, the protagonist still seemed to have time to meet their true love and share a passionate first kiss at the most inopportune moment. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
For Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, it’s not an unreasonable request. Her latest novel Damsel was a breath of fresh air, which is ironic because I feel like I held my breath in anticipation from start to finish.
The story begins with Prince Emory, who’s been told since birth that he’s intelligent, strong and selfless. When his father dies, tradition dictates that he must risk his life to slay a dragon and rescue a damsel who must be in distress, even though she’s unaware of it.
The damsel in the tale is the original archetype of the manic pixie dream girl. She has no memory and she doesn’t have a name until Prince Emory gives her one (he liked the sound of the name Ama). She’s also been given a purpose: to return to the kingdom of Harding and become the Prince’s bride.
At first glance, Harding is your average fairy tale kingdom. You’ve got your royals, blacksmiths, barkeeps and handmaidens; everyone’s busy playing their role. Ama, however, finds it difficult to get into character. Much to Prince Emory’s dismay, she questions everything, but her curiosity and internal commentary offers a perspective that’s often missing from historical fictions, even fantastical ones.
Poverty, misogyny and sexual violence are commonplace in Harding. Though Ama is unsure of her past, she’s acutely aware that there’s something bizarre about this community. Everyone’s watching to see whether she’ll play along or suffer the consequences. Unable to shake her feelings of uneasiness, Ama slowly uncovers the truth of her origins and the path that has been chosen for her.
It struck me that this fictional world is all too familiar. Damsel is a fairy tale in the most traditional sense: a cautionary story meant to reflect the darkest parts of our society. The ugly sentiments at the core of the exchanges between Ama and those complicit in upholding Harding’s status quo are more common in our culture than some would like to admit. I don’t want to give too much away, but what I can say is that I wish this book had existed when I was combing through the library shelves as a teen. Damsel is at the helm of a new caliber of youth fantasy novels that are unequivocally and unapologetically feminist.
Time and time again, Ama saves her own life by taming her impulses and learning to conform to the kingdom of Harding. She learns to come off as vulnerable and helpless; to invoke the name of her masculine counterpart to ward off the advances of predatory men; to feign gratitude to stay in Prince Emory’s good graces — even as he humiliates, gaslights and abuses her.
If you’re anything like me and grew up longing for a fast-paced novel that manages to capture scenes with picturesque detail, while grappling with feminist issues in a meaningful and empowering way, you owe it to your teenage self to read this book.
Damsel, by Elana K available in-store at Indigo and to order through HarperCollins Publishers.