Fantasy, Fiction, Historical

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

I love all things pertaining to dragons and I was immediately sucked in by the description of When Women Were Dragons. I’d heard wonderful things about Kelly’s middle grade novels and her first adult novel certainly did not disappoint.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales, and talons; left a trail of fiery destruction in their path; and took to the skies. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragons exposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.

Review

To say it’s been an interesting week would be an understatement and as such, the review feels incredibly pertinent today. On Monday, a draft of a Supreme Court opinion was leaked. A Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and end access to safe abortions for women in the US, unless it is protected by their respective state. The state I live in, Pennsylvania, will only continue to allow safe access to abortion if Democrats retain power of the executive branch this November, i.e. if Josh Shapiro wins the gubernatorial election. The national media considers us a safe state, but we only will be if people vote in November.

How awful is that? My fate as a woman, my rights as a human being, are dependent upon a bunch of old white men. It is so easy to start thinking that all men are evil and that if it wasn’t for men, our lives as women would be so much easier. It’s hard not to think that, when you can’t think of many instances of an old white man defending your rights. When the men in your own family vote against candidates who will protect the rights of the women in their families. It’s hard not to get over excited about books and media that portray men as the enemy.

As I’ve delved deeper into my new subgenre obsession of mid-century feminist fiction, I’ve come to realize it falls squarely into two camps. One where the men are either oblivious or allies in securing women’s rights, and ones where all the men in the book are giant piles of shit, except for maybe one. When Women Were Dragons unfortunately falls into the latter category.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this book, I really do. Kelly Barnhill wrote it after being inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, and he is a despicable piece of shit human being. A testimony that many women watched with bated breath. There are now two men on the bench of the highest court in the land with questionable histories regarding how they have treated women. In the land of the free, it’s hard to see that. Harder to accept that these men have control, in any way shape or form, over my life.

In When Women Were Dragons, the women burn the world to the ground. The crimes against them too great to enumerate. En masse, they turn into dragons and leave the world behind. They leave their daughters to the fathers that they hated, if they didn’t eat them first. They leave. Some stay and try to affect change, like Alex’s mother, but for the most part, they disappear in a cloud of fire and brimstone. Did they choose to leave? Hard to say. Will they come back? Who knows. But them men in charge have chosen to erase their existence completely, to pretend that the women who dragoned never existed in the first place.

Alex, our narrator, loses her aunt to dragoning and gains a sister in her baby cousin, the child her aunt has left behind (after eating her husband). Her own mother didn’t dragon, but is suffering in her own way, but felt compelled to stay for her two girls. Alex doesn’t fully understand, or appreciate, her mother and her mother’s rules and reasons for how they live their life, but when her mother is no longer around to protect her and Bea, Alex is forced to quickly grow up.

In addition to Alex’s first person POV, we, as readers, are treated to various interludes from the foremost (underground) expert on Dragoning, Dr. Gantz, and I appreciated his overwhelming desire to understand and discuss what was happening to the women who dragooned, rather than ignore it like most of his contemporaries. While every other man in the book is portrayed to be a piece of shit product of their time that doesn’t give a flying fuck about the women around them, Dr. Gantz is our scientist in in shining armor.

I have complicated feelings on the feminist manhating narrative. It’s an easy one to fall into when life feels like shit. It’s harder to seek allies and to fall into the narrative that all men our shit and out to get us. That all men seek control. Because saying all men isn’t that different then the men who say not all men. If we continue to push divisions, between the parties, between the sexes, division is what we’re going to get and we’re not going to get anything done. My husband is coming with me to DC on Saturday to protest along with my mother and my sister. When we stand with each other, that is when we can accomplish lasting changes.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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