Elana K. Arnold


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Damsel Summary

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Damsel is a young adult fantasy by Elana K. Arnold. Published in 2018 and nominated for the Printz Honor Award, the story centers around a young girl who discovers what it means to be a damsel in distress when she’s forced to marry a mysterious, dangerous prince. Although Damsel is aimed at teenagers, adult readers praise the book for its daring themes and bold content. Arnold is the author of numerous young adult and middle grade novels, and Damsel is her latest book. Before writing full-time, Arnold taught Creative Writing and Adolescent Literature at the University of California.

The protagonist is a teenage girl called Ama. When readers first meet Ama, she’s trapped in a cave which turns out to be a dragon’s lair. She has no memory of how she got there, and she can’t remember any of her life before her imprisonment. All Ama knows is that she’s in the dragon’s lair to fulfil a very particular purpose. Ama’s a prize for whoever slays the dragon.

In the kingdom of Harding, tradition is everything, and certain rites must be followed. When the king dies and the male heir is old enough to marry, he must complete a task to secure the throne. The prince must venture into a dark, desolate landscape and kill a dragon. If he succeeds, he wins the throne and the damsel waiting inside the lair. If he fails, he dies, and so does the bride-in-waiting. Ama, of course, doesn’t get a say in any of this. In this kingdom, women are treated no better than chattel.

The heir-in-waiting is Prince Emory. When Emory’s first introduced, he’s drunk on the glory of rescuing Ama and securing his place on the throne. The entire kingdom turns out to revel in his success and meet the new princess. It’s not clear how Ama is chosen as the sacrifice, how old she is, where her family is, or where she comes from—all people care about is Emory’s achievements.

Ama’s ushered back to the palace and shown to her new rooms. No one pays her much attention now that she’s within the palace walls. She asks Emory about how she got into the dragon’s lair because she can’t remember, but he refuses to tell her anything. She asks him what her name is, because she doesn’t even remember this, and he calls her Ama because it’s the first name he can think of.

Emory tells Ama that she must fulfil her duty as a princess and stop asking questions she doesn’t need answers to. Her life, as Emory explains, only matters now that she’s in the palace. Her history doesn’t matter. Ama senses that she can’t trust Emory and that there’s something sinister going on. With nothing better to do with her time, Ama vows to uncover the palace’s mysteries and the reason why her memories have suddenly disappeared.

As the weeks go by, Emory tries to be a better fiancé. He’s kind and attentive, and he distracts Ama from asking too many questions. However, it’s only a matter of time before his true colors show through and Ama sees the distraction for what it is. Emory makes it clear that he owns Ama, and she must answer his every whim. Her only duties are to make him happy, satisfy him sexually, and bear him a son.

Ama approaches the queen for womanly guidance, because she’s feeling stressed and overwhelmed at the prospect of sleeping with a man. The queen isn’t interested in helping Ama, even though she endured the same fate herself. She tells Ama to focus on pleasing Emory and then everything will be fine. When Ama tries to question the queen further, she dismisses her and refuses to entertain her again until she settles down.

Ama plans on running away but she’s got nowhere to go. She doesn’t know who she can trust and, for all she knows, whoever she meets on the road will hand her over to Emory again. On the other hand, she knows that people could take advantage of her and pretend to be her family when they only plan on using her for personal gain. Ama’s trapped and she knows that her fate is sealed forever.

Ama’s forced to sleep with Emory with the hopes of conceiving a son. No one supports her or listens to her when she claims that men aren’t entitled to sex just because they want it. Slowly, Ama’s memories start to return, and she realizes that this is a far more misogynistic society than she ever imagined.

Emory admits the whole truth of the rite and what happens in the kingdom of Harding. Ama isn’t a human at all—she’s a dragon. Emory subdued her in the lair by wounding her flank. He then inserted himself into her wound as a sign of male domination. This act of dominance turned Ama from a dragon into a naked human woman.

Horrified and disgusted by this truth, Ama gathers every shred of self-preservation and courage and returns to her dragon form. She will kill anyone who tries to harm or tame her. Emory refuses to let her go and she kills him by ripping out his heart and eating it. Ama flies away, leaving the kingdom of Harding forever changed and the throne empty.