"The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: When the king dies, his son the prince 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, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.
As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her, but around her, now, and closing in." - From Goodreads
*Note: I am not sure how to review Damsel without giving away some aspects of it, so I will give a general spoiler warning. I try not to explicitly reveal plot points, but just in case, potential spoilers ahead.*
Damsel starts off like your average fairytale: a prince is on his way across a grey barren land to slay a dragon and rescue a damsel. It is a tradition, a rite, that has existed in the Kingdom of Harding for as long as any one can remember. For a prince to become a king, he must slay a fierce dragon and return triumphant with the woman who will become his bride.
But as soon as our damsel wakes up astride a horse and in the arms of Prince Emory, no memory of her life or even her name before that moment, you can tell that this won’t be your average fairytale. This is apparent a little before, but becomes evident when *he* chooses her name for her: Ama.
The feeling of wrongness grows as the story progresses, as Ama is introduced to the former damsel and Queen Mother, as she tries to settle into life at the castle and learn her place in it, as her future becomes clearer the more she learns about the women who have come before her.
“Ama was, she saw, both terrifically important and terribly insignificant, in equal measures, at exactly the same time.”
Damsel is dark and unsettling and beautiful and tragic. Ama’s story, her position, as a damsel, as a women, is so close to home for a lot of women out there. The idea Harding that just because things have always been a certain way, they should continue to be so, is one that is prevalent in a lot of societies. Traditions are important, they can be fundamental in understanding cultures and histories and lives, but some traditions are detrimental to growth. And many traditions seem to exist at the expense of women.
“That is the way of being a woman, to carve away at herself, to fit herself to the task, but, also, to be able to carve herself in a different way, when a different shape is needed.”
I’m rambling, I know, and not really discussing the book, but it contains so much commentary on the role of women and the view and burden of expectation on them that I can’t help it.
“You see, Ama, it is for men to create. It is for men to decide. It is for men to speak. It is your place to listen, and follow, and gestate. And those are no small things! For without women to listen, how would the men’s words be heard?”
Ama, our damsel, is strong and sympathetic and kind and hopeful. She begins the story with a certain naïvety having no other option but to trust what she’s being told, the stories of her rescue. But as reality sinks in and she learns more about everyone's expectations of her and the role she is meant to play as a future Queen, Ama's newborn mentality begins to crumble.
“She did not know where she had started, or what she had been, but she knew it was not this.”
Emory, our prince, is caught up in his own privilege; his inflated self-worth and entitlement (to say the least) being backed by a system that’s been rewarding him and his male ancestors for as far back as the memory of the land goes.
“It did not matter if she believed him. What she believed would change nothing.”
It is not an action heavy “fairytale”, nor is it romantic in anyway, despite the dragon and the prince. The journey Ama goes through, and it is very much Ama’s story, despite the initial chapters from Emory’s perspective, is one of discovery. It is about gaining knowledge and truth and power, as well as a story of control. Both the lack of control women in the kingdom and Ama have of their lives, and the ways they find to take control. Some of these ways, you discover, are not at all pleasant. In fact, a lot of the incidents that occur in this book are horrifying, leaving the reader uneasy and nauseated. There are, among other things, mentions of self-harm, incidents of sexual assault, and animal cruelty.
“Secrets, like memories, do not disappear just because they are buried by snow or time or distance.”
The characters that surrounded Ama were vivid, though that only served to highlight some ugly truths for a few. You can’t help but dislike most of the other characters (for reasons that make more sense if you read the book), while barely sympathizing with a handful. The only secondary character that is lovable, that is as blameless as Ama and did not perpetuate the system, was Sorrow, the lynx kitten Ama rescues on her way back to Harding.
The language was beautiful, with sadness and a sense of loss serving as the undercurrents of the novel. The sense of unease that Ama feels is palpable. And the ending? Bittersweet and triumphant.
“One should not make a pet out of a wild beast...”
It’s a quick read (though emotionally straining), and more than worth it. This is especially true if you’re into subverting traditional stories of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. It is a beautiful story. It is a terrible story. It is a powerful and brutal story. It is an important story. It is all these things at once, and so much more.
If anyone has read Damsel, let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!