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Review: When Women Were Dragons

Updated: Feb 26

2/5 stars

This would have been a fantastic short story! Like, really compelling and fun and clever! But, it's not. It's a 362-page book with a lot of repetition, a lot of inconsistencies, and not enough plot. The premise has such potential! In a collective fit of frenzied feminism, a bunch of ho-hum 1950's housewives spontaneously turn into dragons. In this "mass dragoning" they all sprout wings and create a lot of heat (never was clear to me if they breathed fire? or were just... hot?), destroy everything in their paths, and fly off into the sky!

Soooo... that sounds fun! But then... kind of nothing else happens? Alex Green is a young girl when her aunt dragons, leaving behind a daughter, Beatrice. Alex's parents take Beatrice in, tell Alex she's her sister, and never speak of Aunt Marla again. The media and the government institute a campaign of silence as well - no one speaks of dragons. Know someone who dragoned? No. They just "disappeared."

There's a lot of things that felt like they were supposed to be metaphors, but they were too convoluted to make much sense. Like silencing women, objectifying/controlling women's bodies, motherhood (mothers abandoning children, children's trauma over being abandoned), the patriarchy, access to education... It was a lot, and at the same time nothing at all.

I can't not share this section of a review that I saw on Goodreads:

"... It was way too inconsistent. Turning into a dragon is about rage, no it's not. It's spontaneous, no it's not. It's distinctly female, no it's not. Women change because their husbands suck, but wait actually some of them try to make it work with their husbands because they love each other. The dragons are enormous, wait no actually they can still fit in their houses and wear aprons, but wait no actually they're big enough to carry military aircraft. No one can even utter the word "dragon," well until they all just re-enter society out of the blue and people hesitate for like maybe a second but it's no biggie."

So, there you have it. A lot. And nothing at all.

Barnhill could've taken this nugget of an idea and made it into a rather poignant short story... thus strengthening my contention that the majority of novels should've been short stories (and the majority of non-fiction should've been articles for a magazine).

But my other issue with it is that the writing itself was simplistic in a way that YA novels tend to be - but this is meant to be her first foray into adult fiction. Last year I read Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and enjoyed it! It was definitely written for younger readers, and yet that book had more nuance and intrigue, and was written with a steadier grasp of world-building. I wonder if she just bit off more than she could chew here. A great little flame of an idea stoked into a dim and haphazard bonfire.

It's a good title, though. And good cover art.


UP NEXT: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

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