Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

by Jess
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When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill is the first book I’ve read all the way through since my son was born seven months ago, and I read it within 48 hours. Once I started, I just couldn’t put it down.

It was recommended to me by my therapist. I’ve been battling postpartum depression and mom guilt, and she suggested this book as something to “do” to get out of the funk I was in. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but finishing a book definitely made me feel accomplished. I felt like I did something besides “just” being a Mom.

And now, less than a month later, here I am, sitting down to write a review of the book. (I have a baby wrapped on my back, but I’m here, and I’m writing.)

When Women Were Dragons – Summary

When Women Were Dragons tells the story of the Mass Dragoning of 1955. The story is told through the eyes of protagonist Alex as she navigates the Dragonings. Sprinkled in are scientific documents and historical accounts of previous Dragonings.

Dragoning is considered taboo in the novel, and Alex is forced to keep quiet on the topic. This leaves readers in the dark about the reason why hundreds of thousands of mothers and wives suddenly grew wings and talons and left their families behind.

As readers learn more about the phenomenon of Dragoning from the scientist, Dr. H.N. Gantz, they’re left with more questions than before as the whole town tries to figure out the pressing question: Why are women turning into dragons?

My Review

Fantasy is not my genre. Neither is historical fiction. I don’t read it; I don’t write it. However. This book kept my attention, and I got so pulled into the novel that I might consider picking up another fantasy book for my next read.

In my opinion, the writing was beautiful. Barnhill’s use of descriptive language made it easy to suspend disbelief, allowing me to get caught up in the history of the Mass Dragoning. At one point, I turned to my husband and said “Ugh, this is so unrealistic… the mom did ________” and my husband said, “Oh, yes, the wife doing that one thing is totally unrealistic in the book you’re reading about dragons.” I suppose he had a point.

The characters were well-developed, and the plot line moved forward naturally. I enjoyed the variety of representations in the novel, from multifaceted librarians to members of the LGBT+ community. None of the characters felt forced, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in literature. The whole story felt very natural.

The theme of the story was also moving and so relevant to today’s world. Inspired by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, Barnhill set out to write a novel that showed how fearless women really are.

The one aspect of the story that disappointed me was the plot resolution. I felt like there were a couple of loose ends that I wish had been tied up, and I feel like the story lacked answers to the questions that we were all asking. It almost seems like the author didn’t know the answers herself, so she used the “We may never know” scapegoat to end the story.

Overall, I give this book 4/5 stars, only because of the lack of a satisfactory ending. I know some may argue that that’s how science works, leaving more questions than answers, but it’s just not what I personally look for when reading a book. If I gave stars based on the writing alone, however, I’d give it 5/5.

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