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When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill – ARC Review!

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant 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. Seemingly for good. 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, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review & can confirm all thoughts and opinions are my own.

“They stepped out of their robes like nymphs, and they stepped out of their bodies like monsters.”

In 1950’S America things seem to be the norm, until 1955 and the mass Dragoning that affects the entire US. Alex Green was only a girl when this happened and couldn’t understand the anger and fear and silence that came from it, but she was a good girl and did as she was told; Do not talk about Dragons & do not look up to the sky. But as big as the consequences are country wide, Alex is living with her own, a furiously diligent and overbearing mother, who denies the existence of Alex’s aunt, an ever distant father and a new sister who is wild and untamable and far too interested in Dragons. Told from Alex’s POV both before and after the Dragoning and interspersed with newS articles, letters and scientific research, When Women Were Dragons brings to light the choices we make as Women and the consequences that can come from trying to deny who, and what, we are.

” I was four years old when I first met a dragon. I never told my mother. I didn’t think she’s understand.”

This is a book about rage, about women sprouting wings and teeth and devouring the husbands that dared touch what wasn’t there’s. But told from Alex’s POV this story becomes something else, something more. It becomes about what it means to be yourself, beholden to no one, autonomous, the ability to live life on your own terms. Alex is someone who has grown up in a world where women were silenced, second class, owned by their husbands, a life she certainly never wants for herself. She is someone who loves with all of her being and, because of that, someone prone to tremendous heartbreak. She doesn’t understand why her being a woman should mean she is treated any differently, she just knows it does, and at first she is willing to let this pass, as long as she can still do the things she wants. But as the book, and with it her anger and grief progresses, she finds herself not just unable to understand, but unwilling too, and seeing her grow through this story, become wholly her own person, was truly tremendous to experience.

Through Alex, we also get a look at the lives of those around her. Her mother, who chose Alex and her family over change. Her sister, who was always destined to be something more, something bigger, something untamable. Her father, who was never quite willing to understand her, and who was more than willing to abandon her when the need arose. Her Aunt who, tried as hard as she could, but eventually had to give in to the feeling inside of her and escape the life she was living. But as well as her family, we meet people who Alex encounters throughout her life, those that play a pivotal part in her becoming who she was. These are the people who are not appeased by the silence, the people who are not afraid to stand up and shout, the people who this world needs now more than ever.

“Anger is a funny thing. And it does funny things to us if we keep it inside. I encourage you to consider a question. Who benefits, my dear, when you force yourself to not feel angry?’ She tilted her head and looked at me so hard I thought she could see right into my bones. She raised her eyebrows. ‘Clearly not you.”

When Women Were Dragons is a book filled with uplifting joy, profound sadness and uncontrollable rage and anger and is written in such a way you can’t help but feel a mixture of them all whilst reading. I can’t count the amount of times I had to put this book down, just step away because I could feel the anger pouring out of me whilst reading. Or how many times I teared up, be it through sadness or happiness. How it deals with themes such as choice, prejudice, feminism, showing us the importance of autonomy over our bodies and the threat that the patriarchy holds over that. How it tackles the term ‘women’ including trans women, showing how it’s a state of mind, not a biological fact, absolutely blew me away.

Set in 1950’s America when women’s rights and those of a multitude of different people were at the forefront of the world, When Women Were Dragons delves into the battle for equality, for freedom and things like reproductive rights but with a fantastical twist. Instead of rising up and protesting, although this does happen later in the book, women reached a point where they couldn’t take being treated as second class, as lesser than anyone else and sprouted wings and teeth. Some tried to stay and live a normal life, others took their revenge and then took to the skies, but there was one thing that every single instance had in common, no one talked about it. The denial of Dragons could be seen to be many different things, but Barnhill shows is to be the way those in power shove anything they don’t like, don’t want to deal with, or are afraid of under the rug. By simply denying it’s existence they can change the perspective of millions, and it’s only when we come together, when we force these truths into the light that change and progress can be made.

“While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.”

This is an incredibly hard story to talk about without giving away spoilers, either in plot or character development. but suffice to say that this isn’t necessary going to be the story you expect going in. It was slow and weaved between scientific articles, snippits from newspapers as well as the timeline of Alex’s life. This book isn’t for those readers who live for the action, for the out of nowhere plot twist, for the shock factor. Instead it’s for the readers who enjoy a story that meanders, that doesn’t necessarily have a nice ‘tied in a neat bow’ ending, the readers who don’t want to sit in the silence anymore. This may be my first book by the author but I can say with 100% certainty it will not be my last. When We Were Dragons is a story that could never be more poignant or more needed now, at a time when, as women, our autonomy is in question, and I hope the lessons from this book can be taken into the real world.

8 replies »

  1. This is a great review. I didn’t enjoy it as much as this but can see what you loved about it. I was just disappointed in the lack of dragons I think. They felt a bit of a let down to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I started reading my eARC of this book and I’m amazed at how well the author balanced both the atmosphere of the 1950s with what we’re all experiencing now. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book. An excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

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