Review: The Damsel

The Damsel audiobook cover. A shirtless man lies with a woman sprawled atop him, posessively caressing his face. The Damsel by Victoria Vale.
My rating:  4 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 10 hrs 13 mins.
🔥Steamy Content!🔥

The Damsel: A Dark Regency Erotic Novel, The Villain Duology Book 4 by Victoria Vale is a sultry, BDSM romance which peers into the shadows usually ignored by a Regency and delights in the things that it finds there.

The Damsel was my first 'Dark Regency', and I wasn't sure what to expect. I have always listened to Regency stories when I want lightweight, predictable, easy-listening, but I was intrigued by the prospect of exploring another facet of the period. I'm glad I took the chance, as it was very entertaining and a fresh - though some may feel a rather sacrilegious - take on the genre.

In Vale's Regency world, society etiquette is dramatically subverted at many a turn, though mainly behind closed doors. The villains are brutal, the intimacy graphic, and the characters' torturous experiences are not all of the BDSM variety. The Damsel features a D/s relationship with the heroine in the Dominant role, and I enjoyed having both Robert's and Cassandra's pleasures articulated during the steamier scenes. Many books of a similar genre focus on one partner's experience and the result is often a little lacklustre. Vale gives us Robert's burgeoning desire and follows it to its release, building with Cassandra's own and binding them to each other with its intensity. In this audiobook there was great balance between the two perspectives; neither Cassandra's nor Robert's characters are neglected and their wants and needs are explored fairly equally. I was glad that, despite Cassandra's Dominance, we were not excluded from Robert's desire.

This audiobook was the best blend of romance and BDSM of any I've heard, thus far. So often the affection in similar novels feels tacked-on to justify or soften other behaviours, but the tenderness between Lady Cassandra and Mr Stanley felt as sincere as their passion.

Before discussing other themes from the book, I feel that I should include a content warning. This story contains references to pregnancy loss, child loss, rape, and violence. Though a certain element of reproductive tragedy is common in historical novels (as it was to the era), there is a great deal of focus on pain and loss at the start of this book. The heroine is also the survivor of a brutal sexual assault, and her traumatic experiences influence much of this audiobook.

The first hour or so of this novel is almost relentlessly bleak, to the point that it did feel a little gratuitous. A rich backstory is helpful for developing a solid understanding of a character's motivations, but I would have preferred it to be woven into the novel rather than delivered like an Oscars 'People We Lost This Year' montage at the start.

While I enjoyed this unusual approach to the traditionally-fluffy Regency romance, and admired the author's determination to tackle some difficult subjects, it felt at times that it was a little heavy-handed. The book aims to be staunchly feminist, repeatedly calling out the injustice of victim blaming, but highlights this fact using attitudes that would have been anathema at the time. To a cynical eye it almost feels as though the main characters go a little overboard on this point to excuse using rape as a plot device. The 'Rape for Empowerment' trope is almost as common as the 'Vengeful Rampage' to which it inevitably leads, but it is handled relatively sensitively and the fallout from Cassandra's torment is demonstrably vast and layered.

I generally enjoyed getting to know Cassandra and Robert, and was captivated by their fascination with each other. Their needs met in such a variety of ways that they indeed felt like "two sides of the same coin", as Robert asserted.

There were several clumsy passages which would have benefitted from tightening, such as sentences like, "ever since knowledge of Bertram's misdeeds had become common knowledge", "we are connected by our connection", and "I thought to wake you and order breakfast but I didn't want to wake you". A little tweaking would have helped it flow better and feel more sophisticated, which I find important to the language of the period.

Upon the same note, Cassandra's description of her new residence's meaningful occupancy as "bloody fantastic" was glaring. Such modern usage of the word 'fantastic' felt anachronistic, as it did not come into commonly recorded usage in that sense until over a century later. Cassandra's attitudes may be ahead of their time, but not by one-hundred years.

Overall I was sorry to part from the characters and was pleased that their story ended on a positive note, especially after such a grim start. Whilst this audiobook has rather little in common with a traditional Regency romance, its HEA was a welcome nod to the classic format.

The narrator, Darcy Stark, was new to me but very enjoyable. Stark's reading was very dramatic with the occasional unusual inflection toward the beginning, but he brought each character to life very nicely. His voice was passionate and emotive, coping well with tragedy and intimacy. Though much of the story involves Cassandra's perspective, I was glad to have a male-sounding narrator. With stories of this nature where it is imperative to develop a bond with the hero who grounds the story, I find that much easier with an authentic male voice. It depends on the narrator, of course, and personal preference.

There were a few mispronunciations in his performance but nothing that was too irksome or would have warranted re-recording. Only "eccentric" was repeatedly frustrating.

Whilst very different to my usual, lightweight Regency fare, I'm looking forward to listening to similar audiobooks by Victoria Vale. I think the earlier books in the Villain Duology will be next on my wishlist, even though this was a stand-alone novel.

I would recommend this audiobook to people who usually find Regency romances a little too sweet, and to those who would like to explore Dominance and submission against the safe, ordered backdrop of Regency England.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.

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