Damsel by Elana K. Arnold is currently raising a lot of eyebrows in the YA world. It’s marketed as YA and got two starred reviews from SLJ and Booklist. It was a Printz Award Nominee (2019). It’s a feminist retelling of Sleeping Beauty, and it contains triggers like rape, animal cruelty, and even bestiality. Yep.
Warning: I’m not going to hold back with my terminology in this review. I can’t review this properly without just saying what I need to say. You’ve been warned…
AUTHOR: Elana Arnold
PUBLISHER: Balzer + Bray
PUBLICATION DATE: October 2, 2018
SOURCE: Brooklyn Public Library OverDrive
SETTING: medieval kingdom
GIVE IT TO: ?
SUMMARY OF DAMSEL
When a king dies, his son must venture into the world, slay a dragon, and rescue a damsel. Only then can the prince prove himself worthy of becoming the new king. When Ama wakes in Prince Emory’s arms, she has no memory of her life before. Prince Emory tells her he has rescued her from a dragon, and now, she is destined to become his wife and queen.
REVIEW OF DAMSEL
I’m not really sure how to review this, but I’m going to give it a try. This is one weird little book. It’s like a bad car accident that you can’t look away from. It made me so mad, but I read nearly all of it in one sitting. I can’t really say I liked it, but I can’t say I hated it, either.
My biggest concern is that this is marketed as YA. Publishers label a book as YA when they market it to readers aged 12-18, but we all know that YA isn’t for every 12-year old. In Damsel, the characters themselves are young adults. Ama is never given a specific age, but Prince Emory is nineteen. Rape, misogyny, and animal cruelty may appear in other YA books, but as an avid and regular reader of YA books, not to mention a secondary school librarian, this one just does not feel like YA to me.
I liked the ending, but the “twist”–if it can even be called that–is super-predictable. Just read the summary and think about it for five minutes. You’ll probably guess it correctly. I’m not sure if it is even supposed to be a twist since the whole story is dripping with hints.
Because it is marketed as YA and received two starred reviews (and now, a Printz Honor), I worry that school librarians will purchase this title without knowing what they are buying. School librarians, you really should read this before you buy it for your library, but in case you don’t read it, here’s a guide to what you’ll get (some spoilers here):
- rape–one digital penetration and one forced “hand job”
- lots of awkward and unwelcome kissing, touching, and breast-squeezing
- lewd staring by several male characters
- rape culture, constant threat of rape
- descriptive and repeated animal cruelty and threat of animal cruelty
- multiple references to Emory’s penis as “yard” and “horn.” It gets old quickly.
- story of a former queen’s self-harm and suicide
- it is well-known that Emory has and keeps many female conquests, even as he is engaged to Ama
- a brutal (but oh-so-satisfying) murder
- one disgusting, cringe-worthy bestiality scene. Prince Emory “slays” the dragon by having sex with its wounded armpit. I wish I were joking.
So what is to be gained by purchasing this title for your library? Well, I’m sure there is someone in your school who will love this book. It has plenty of fodder for discussion, even if that discussion may be fueled by contempt for the book. Book clubs could have a heyday with it if minds stay open and members don’t just shut down and refuse to read it (as sometimes happens in book clubs).
THEMES: feminism, power, control
THE BOTTOM LINE: Damsel was interesting enough for me to read in one sitting, but I have no idea what audience this should be for. I think more people–teens and adults alike–will hate this book than love it. At the same time, I’d love to discuss this in a university class or a book club. If I were giving an award for the weirdest book of 2018, this would be the hands-down winner.
STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: I don’t plan to get this one. While there may be readers who find value, my budget is limited, and there are other titles I’ll choose first.
- Overall: 3/5
- Creativity: 4/5
- Characters: 4/5
- Engrossing: 4/5
- Writing: 3/5
- Appeal to teens: ?
- Appropriate length to tell the story: 5/5
- Language: mild; stupid terms for penises (“yard” and “horn”–LOL)
- Sexuality: high; two rape scenes, one bestiality scene, unwelcome fondling, kissing, touching
- Violence: high; sexual assault, descriptive animal cruelty, degradation
- Drugs/Alcohol: none