Book: When Women Were Dragons
Author: Kelly Barnhill
Narrators: Kimberly Farr & Mark Bramhall
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Alex and Beatrice talk about prom dresses.
Content Warnings: Infidelity, murder, gaslighting, sexism, misogyny, death of a parent, abandonment, cancer, grief, death, emotional abuse, homophobia, alcoholism, child abuse, toxic relationship, panic attacks, hospital/medical content, body shaming
So you know how I mentioned in my review yesterday that Portrait of A Thief was one of my most disappointing reads of 2022? Well, today we have my actual most disappointing read of 2022. Everything about this book should have been something I loved. Dragons. Feminist rage. Historical setting. Everything about this book really screamed me. But instead of a book packed with dragons and feminist fury, it ended up largely being a coming of age story of a fairly dull main character who didn’t really seem to drive the story forward much and despite being promised dragons, the dragons were actually a fairly small part of the book. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
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.
My biggest issue with this book was….can you guess it? Yup, our old friend pacing is making an appearance again! One of these days I will not complain about slow pacing in books quite as much, but today is not that day. This book was so, so slow to get going, it only really got interesting when the dragons returned and by that point, you’re about 2/3rds of the way through the book and you’ve already invested a lot of your time & energy into a book that’s moving along at a glacial pace. It’s about a 15 hour or so long audiobook anyway, so it’s not exactly short, and the slow pace definitely made it feel a lot longer than it actually was, it took me a good month to finish it, which is not usual for me. We spent ages on Alex’s childhood, which wasn’t all that interesting to me, and yet the bit where the dragons returned was such a small part of the book which I would have loved to see more of!
Which brings me to one of my other big problems: LACK OF DRAGONS IN A BOOK SUPPOSEDLY ABOUT DRAGONS. I don’t know about you, but when I’m promised dragons, I want dragons everywhere. But the dragons hardly have any impact on the story until right at the end, and even then, we only get to see a certain type of dragon: the dragons that chose to return to their families. Why couldn’t we see the dragons that chose to have adventures, that chose to explore the seas and space? I was expecting the dragons to be the main point of this book and they kind of ended up being a side story to Alex and her terrible family life.
I didn’t love the memoir-esque style of the book, it’s written in the style of an older Alex’s memoir about her experiences, which meant that everything felt very passive and the emotional beats of the story felt somewhat lacking, because she wasn’t so much experiencing things, as just telling us what happened to her. That’s not to say that all memoirs are boring, in fact, I’ve been really enjoying memoirs in recent years but when I read fiction, I want to feel that emotional connection to the character and in this case, the memoir style felt like it acted as a barrier to really getting that emotional connection with the character.
I didn’t love either of the narrators, if they had been more engaging, maybe I would have connected with the book more, however both Kimberly Farr and Mark Bramhall had a style of narration that felt both flat and dry, and was honestly a bit of a chore to listen to.
The whole magic knot system just didn’t really make much sense to me, it was kind of confusing and not really properly explained, I didn’t really understand why it was relevant. It seemed as if maybe the knots stopped the girls from dragoning, but the author didn’t go into too much detail about it and I wish that she would have.
Alex was kind of dull as a main character, she seemed to have very little personality. I really couldn’t tell you much about her other than she is “sensible” and “likes maths”. I felt pretty indifferent towards her, which for me is the worst feeling to have towards a character: I’d rather hate a main character than feel indifferent towards them because at least then you have some sort of strong emotion towards to them. Alex’s passivity also seemed to be echoed through the style of the book, with everything being told to you rather than shown, which I guess is maybe good from a characterisation standpoint, but it’s very dull from a reader standpoint! Her sister Beatrice seemed like she would have made a much better main character, she’s obviously very young in the book, but she seemed like quite a firecracker who would have been much more fun to follow.
To be honest, all the characters felt kind of underdeveloped, they really needed more depth and nuance to them, it was like Barnhill had merely traced the outlines of each of the characters and plopped them onto the page without really considering much about them beyond those outlines. My favourite characters have all been ones that have real emotional depth to them, and that just felt very lacking in the characters in this book. The relationships in this book also felt kind of flat because the characters weren’t developed enough: I usually love sisterly relationships in books, but the one here didn’t really ring true because Alex and Bea just weren’t developed enough.
The one point I did feel bad for Alex though was when her father left her in charge of her young sister so that he could go and be with his new family. WHO ABANDONS THEIR DAUGHTERS LIKE THAT? Her dad was definitely THE WORST, leaving a 15 (I think?) year old in charge of her seven year old sister!
Apparently this book was initially meant to be a short story, and after finding that out, my feelings towards the book made so much more sense, because all the way through I just was just thinking “this is so much longer than it needs to be”. It would have been a great short story, but the author expanded it far beyond its limits to be a novel, which meant that it ended up repeating the same points over and over. If it had stayed a short story, I reckon it would have been able to make its point much more effectively, but the point got diluted quite a lot over 15 or so hours!
I was expecting much more anger from a book supposedly about feminist rage, it seemed to put on this front of feminist rage, but never really go to the true depths of it. It also made very little sense that the women supposedly dragoned because they were tired of being exploited for their labour and yet they come back as dragons and are perfectly happy to just slot right back into their old roles? That seemed to go against everything the author had been trying to say up to that point about dragoning being a consequence of female rage. I was honestly expecting something more along the lines of the dragons burning the whole world down and everyone being wiped out, that would probably have been more fun than what we got! It felt like the author wanted to make a point about female anger, but was too scared to fully lean into the depths of it, and I feel like that’s quite common to be honest? Authors say they want to explore female rage, but they’re too afraid to actually show truly angry women.
The writing style was definitely overly flowery to me, it felt like it was trying too hard to be “lyrical” and I definitely had issues with the author using a lot of the same phrases over and over again.
I didn’t feel like Henry Gantz’s academic journal entries really added much to the book, every time one came up it felt kind of jarring, like we were being dragged away from the main story to hear this piece of dragon history that then ended up not being at all relevant? I was glad that his sections got fewer and further between as we went on through the book and honestly, I don’t think the book would have lost anything from them not being there at all.
There was definitely not enough of an intersectional focus in the book, there were no major POC characters, and only passing references to trans people when it came to dragoning-plus it ended up co-opting the civil rights movement for dragons rather than people. HOW ARE YOU DOING A BOOK SET IN THE LATE 1950s/EARLY 1960s AND ROSA PARKS DOESN’T EVEN GET A MENTION? It just seemed like such an oversight that you would set a book in this time period and use imagery from the civil rights movement, and give only a one line or so mention to lunch counter protests and marches? It definitely left me feeling a little icky that the author so clearly borrowed a lot from the civil rights movement and yet had no POC in her book whatsoever as far as I could tell.
With the lack of POC in the book, you also hit another issue with the whole dragoning being caused (in some cases) by rage thing, because if women dragoned when enraged, then surely a lot of major genocides would have been avoided: the slave trade, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust etc. If just a few women had got angry, dragoned and destroyed the people who were trying to kill them, then those tragedies would probably not have happened? I mean I feel like a dragon would have definitely killed Hitler! I felt like Barnhill wanted to do an alternative history, but thought that just meant, history as it was, but just add a few dragons, and didn’t really think about exploring the consequences of what the existence of dragons might have meant for major world events.
This book also fell into one of my least favourite traps when it comes to situations like these: America-centrism. We don’t really get much sense at all as to whether dragoning is something that happens outside America (beyond a few brief mentions in Dr Gantz’s journal entries) and I would have liked to have seen at least a glimpse of what was happening in other countries, if the dragons were a purely American phenomenon (and if so why?) or if women were dragoning all over the world, and how other countries were dealing with that.
There was also a lot around the process of dragoning that was underdeveloped or even contradictory. We get many different explanations for dragoning, first it’s to do with the reproductive system, then it’s not, then it’s to do with rage, then joy, and there was no explanation that really made sense as to why it actually happened. I felt like the author try to handwave away the fact that she hadn’t really thought the whole process of dragoning through, under the guise of “scientific research” and the fact that “science is sometimes wrong”. Whilst both those things are true, in this case it felt like a smokescreen for “author hasn’t really thought about how this would work in practice and so I’ll throw out a few ideas and see what sticks, and if it doesn’t make sense, just fall back on the science can be wrong explanation”. The logistics of how dragons would be able to function in the human world also didn’t really seem to be thought properly through either.
I wish Kelly Barnhill had done more with the fantastical elements, it felt like she had all of these elements that could have been really cool: the dragons, the knot system etc but she didn’t really know what to do with them. It ended up feeling like contemporary coming of age novel with the odd dragon than a book about dragons which is what I thought it would be from the title!
I definitely felt like Alex forgave her aunt far too easily for abandoning her family, she was resistant at first, but seemed to do an about turn fairly quickly for the sake of convenience for the novel. If it had been me, I definitely would have taken longer to forgive my aunt for leaving me with my deadbeat dad who ended up abandoning his daughter and niece!
I also felt a bit iffy about the whole resolution to Marla and Bertha’s argument being Marla getting married and having a child even though she had previously indicated that this was something she didn’t want? It just didn’t feel like a great message to send, and kind of gave vibes of the “if you don’t want children, you’ll change your mind eventually” argument that I hate so much.
Overall, When Women Were Dragons would have had so much potential if it had remained a short story as initially intended. However as a full length novel, it was kind of a mess! It was so slow paced, it didn’t capitalise on the dragons anywhere near as much as it should have, everything about the characters and the world was underdeveloped and the lack of intersectionality, particularly the lack of Black people in the time period mentioned was especially jarring. I really wanted to love this one, but it ended up letting me down so badly. I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a book.
My Rating: 2/5
My next review will be of my most recent read (that I’m reviewing, I read a couple of short non-fiction books that I won’t be writing reviews for as they’re just too short to really warrant the amount of time I spend on reviews!), Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I still need to do the notes for that one, so I don’t think it will be up till the beginning of next week at the earliest.