By Cynthia Bujnicki
For centuries it has been a tradition for the would be king to venture out into the land, slay a dragon, and rescue a damsel. That has been the way for the Kingdom of Harding, and for Ama, it is all new. Waking up naked faced with a strange man, and new expectation and no memory of her past, Ama does not know what to do with herself. However, as the snow comes, something deep inside her awakens, and she soon learns that the past holds secrets to her freedom, if only she could grasp them.
What a fascinating dark and twisted take on the traditional fairy tale. This novel starts as many traditional fairy tales do; the prince is on his way to slay the dragon. However, once Ama wakes up, the entire concept of what it means to be a damsel in distress and flips it on its head.
The novel takes Ama to the kingdom of Harding, and this kingdom is incredibly sexist and misogynistic. Ama does not understand it, this new world she has been brought into. Ama questions her role of wife and future queen, and she has little love of her “prince” and “hero.” However, she learns quick, learns how to make herself small to make the men feel like they have the power, to play the part of the defenseless woman to stay alive, to keep the things she loves alive and safe. She seeks little freedoms, little things she can do in order to survive this new world that would cage her like a bird. Ama hates it, and slowly, the reader sees that this new world order is killing her. The sexism is rampant, and all the women are complicit in it. This is the world they all know. Ama knows nothing of this world, and in the confines of her memory, there is a fire that burns, a fire that seeks to flourish and be free.
It is a thought-provoking novel, that is for sure, a quick and strongly feministic read because through Ama, the novel challenges the rampant sexism. There should be some warning for this book however because there are instances of sexual assault, abuse, both emotional and physical, and self-harm vividly portrayed in this novel. For some that may not bother many, especially if one thinks about the original fairy tales (prince charming did rape sleeping beauty in the original tale, and the grim fairy tales are nothing if, well, grim). Damsel, much like original fairy tales, is an allegory at its core, and it is a very clever, albeit dark, one. It has strong language and scene structures, and the evolution of the story will take readers by surprise. It is a mature read, more for New Adult audiences than young adult, audiences because of the graphicness of such topics, but it is all written with a purpose to show and teach the reader something important about the harm of sexism and misogyny. That makes the story so powerful because Arnold is a magnificent writer. She is gritty, honest, and has a message she wants people to be able to see and understand, a point of view that is important for others to see.
As the story progresses, it comes to a satisfying end for the reader. It is a fantastic story, but readers beware, it is dark and at times graphic. Nonetheless, the message is important and resonates with the reader, lingering on even when the reader is finished. (★★★★☆ | A)