I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In When Women Were Dragons, Alex is just a girl when the world is rocked to its core. One ordinary day in 1955, hundreds of thousands of women abruptly transformed into dragons. There was fire and destruction and fear, and then those women were gone. Among them, Alex’s beloved aunt. But her mother remained, and forbade Alex from speaking of her aunt. She also must refer to her dear little cousin as her sister now, and never to speak of dragons. And so as time goes on and the world decides to forget dragons, Alex grows up. But the consequences of the Mass Dragoning are unavoidable, even if they aren’t spoken of, and Alex is forced to grapple with them, and with her cousin’s growing fascination with dragons.
So you tell me dragons are involved, and I’m in. However, I didn’t expect this book to be quite so thought-provoking and wonderful!
The concept is really intriguing, and it’s executed brilliantly. While it’s certainly a fantastical event, the way it happens among the culture of the 1950s makes it grounded and tangible. There are passages from scientific papers studying what happens when someone dragons, which provides an intriguing angle to contrast with Alex’s own perception. It’s such excellent historical fiction and alternate history. The setting feels so real, and familiar—it’s suburban America, after all, during a time period we’ve either lived or know plenty about—but with a magical twist that makes it fascinating.
The characters are well-rounded and complex, too. I really rooted for Alex throughout, especially in the wake of her father’s failure to support her and her sister/cousin Beatrice. She’s a stubborn, clever young woman, who’s forced to grow up too soon, and who has to grapple with society’s expectations. And while she pushes against convention in some ways, namely her desire for a college education in a time of rampant sexism, she also adheres to certain norms. Her ingrained (thanks to her mother) aversion to speaking of dragons causes a lot of internal, and some external conflict, and I really enjoyed seeing her journey regarding that.
Beatrice is also a wonderful character, with lots of personality. Her childlike curiosity and stubborn streak make her interactions with Alex really interesting, and I loved watching her grow into her own person. The other characters like Marla, Alex’s parents, and Dr. Gantz are also beautifully realized, even if they aren’t in it as much.
You know, for once, I’m not going to complain about there not being enough dragon action in this. I feel like this book has just enough dragon presence, and though with other books I might have said it was insufficient, that’s not what this book is about. There is so much commentary about the role of women in society, about the anger and frustration that often comes with being a woman in a world run by men, about the yearning to be more than what everyone expects you to be. Women turning into dragons is the result, but the themes and message of this book have little to do with literal dragons and everything to do with the power of women. I was also pleased to see that, though trans rights were hardly thought of in the 1950s, Barnhill includes trans women. It’s a passing mention, but it’s there.
In the end, When Women Were Dragons is a remarkable, speculative, contemplative story, with magic to boot. It’s a celebration of women, an analysis of how patriarchal constructs affect people’s everyday lives. It’s a coming of age tale and story of sisterhood, motherhood, and love. It’s a portrait of how science must be championed, rather than censored, even when it’s clear that science is ever changing. It’s a celebration of brilliant researchers and awesome librarians, but also of everyday people who are just trying to live their lives. If you can’t tell by now, I really loved this book. Go read it.
When Women Were Dragons will be published on May 3rd, 2022!