Damsel

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Damsel Book Poster Image
Dark, twisty dragon quest tale has sex, gore, brutality.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This dark fantasy explores a traditional storytelling theme and raises intriguing (sometimes disturbing) questions about what was really going on in those damsel-in-distress tales. Interesting speculation and discussion may follow.

Positive Messages

Strong, violent message of finding out who you are and behaving accordingly, refusing to be defined by expectations of others -- amid a constant drumbeat of expected conformity to "the way things are."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ama's bewilderment; her struggles to find her way in an incomprehensible, abusive, intrigue-saturated environment; and her ferocious protectiveness and kindness to an animal in worse straits than she is will resonate with many readers. That aside, pretty much all principal human characters are pretty awful people, with unthinking, carelessly charming Prince/King Emory leading the pack following the brutal, wenching ways of his late father.

Violence

Violence, sexual and otherwise, is constant, both as looming threat and as routine occurrence. All relationships in the story have an element of abuse. A past queen/former damsel committed suicide to escape her life. Graphic description of character who's digitally raped by her "rescuer"; other forced sexual activity. A young woman is stabbed with a sword, then raped in the resulting wound. A man's still-beating heart is ripped out and eaten. People's eyes are gouged out as punishment for crime. Cute, innocent animals are killed by boastful bullies. A falconer stitches a hawk's eyelids shut. Hunting is constant, and hunters routinely eat the hearts of their prey. 

Sex

Romantic, loving sex is completely absent. What's not absent is constant, over-the-top pressure on female characters to accept a life of being passive "vessels." When it's not actually violent (see "Violence"), sex mostly involves womanizing, penis-brandishing men taking their pleasure with women. Nudity, with descriptions of body parts, etc.

Language

Aside from the constant penis references (Emory's "yard" is practically a character in itself), there are assorted crude references to women's "slits" and the like. Also matter-of-fact description of body parts, pubic hair, etc. "God's balls!" is a typical oath. References to "pissing," "shite," other crude language.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Wine, ale, etc. flow freely at the castle. Some characters seek oblivion in drink.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Elana K. Arnold's Damsel is an imaginative but sexually oppressive and often brutal spin on the classic tale of the hero who rescues a girl from a dragon before they live happily ever after. That story is the ruling culture in the Kingdom of Harding, where princes rise to the throne by slaying dragons and marrying damsels, but no sunshine and rainbows are involved in this tale of a young girl who awakens naked and flung across a stranger's saddle with no knowledge of who she is or where she came from. Womanizing, rape, dismemberment, and assorted forms of killing are essential to the story, and crude references to body parts are common. So is a level of protectiveness that amounts to imprisonment. A man's still-beating heart is ripped out and eaten, and people's eyes are gouged out as punishment for a crime. The shocking ending has especially disturbing, violent images.

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What's the story?

Just like the tale foretold, Prince Emory is off to slay a dragon, rescue and marry a DAMSEL, and take the throne of the Kingdom of Harding. But from the very beginning, hints abound that there's cruel dysfunction in the kingdom and that handsome, charming, unimaginative Emory is a crude, brutal womanizer and otherwise maybe not the nicest person. All of which is gradually discovered by the young red-headed girl he calls Ama, who wakes up slung across his saddle, wrapped in a cloak but otherwise naked, and recalling nothing of who she is and where she came from. But he's got it all figured out.

Is it any good?

Elana K. Arnold's twisty, violent take on the maiden-saved-from-a-dragon fairy tale explores its darker, oppressive side from the viewpoint of a memory-impaired young girl playing the starring role. As the Damsel struggles to understand the role that her "rescuer" has all mapped out for her -- and she finds herself increasingly confined -- it becomes clear that she and anyone she comes to love are in constant danger. Dismemberment, sexual assault, crude language, and gore are plentiful, especially in the shocker of an ending.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about dragon-slaying tales, why they're so popular, and why they might lend themselves to stories like Damsel, which explore the events from a different point of view.

  • Do you know people who always do what they're told/what other people expect of them? Do you think this is a good way to be?

  • How important is it to you to be able to express yourself, like in art or music? Is something missing from your life if you can't do those things, or are you fine?

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