(Audio) Book Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

One of the central points of When Women Were Dragons is an event referred to as The Mass Dragoning. In this version of our world, women have always possessed the ability to transform into dragons – either by choice or happenstance, no one is quite sure. But in 1955, unprecedented numbers of women across the United States turned into dragons on the same day. Alex Green was only a young girl and her mother did not transform. But her aunt did and from that day onward, Marla is never spoken of again in their family. Marla’s infant daughter, Beatrice is raised as Alex’s sister and when their mother dies, Alex is left largely alone to raise her beloved sister-cousin. So when Beatrice is drawn again and again to the idea of dragons, Alex sees this only as dangerous and provocative.

I have a lot of thoughts about this book, which speaks, I think, to the uniqueness of its concept more so than the quality of the writing itself. The idea here has so much potential. There has often been a sense of danger and discomfort when it comes to women’s health and anatomy. (And I was listening to this while I read Leah Hazard’s Womb which definitely got me thinking.) So, what if women weren’t seen as the “weaker sex”? What if women’s health and interior issues weren’t dismissed as “hysteria”? What if women had within them – all of them – something that caused them to turn into one of the most terrifying but beguiling mythical creatures? What if every woman had the potential to become a dragon?

Part of the problem is that this world isn’t very different from our own. Sections from a history of dragons written by a scientist character who has devoted his career to the study of dragons (despite this being deemed “un-American”) show us that women have been turning into dragons since ancient history. So why hasn’t the world adapted in any way? Where do all the dragons live? We learn that dragons can explore space (Which opens up sooo many other questions! How do they breathe in space???) and yet that has had no affect on the world at large?

Toward the end, the story takes a turn and a new question arises. What right does someone have to return? If a mother leaves her children, a woman leaves her friends, can she return and expect to be forgiven and accepted? Does she have the right to persist if they reject her? There is a scene where a dragon is shown singing a lullaby outside of an apartment window, presumably to her children who she left years before when she dragoned. A man (perhaps her former husband) tells her to go away and another dragon tells her that they will try again the next night. Personally, I could only view this as harassment; a huge, terrifying creature hangs outside your window and won’t leave you alone? I’m not rooting for the dragon in that scenario but it felt like Barnhill expected me to since the dragon was a returned mother.

Despite all the interesting aspects and the potential for creativity here, When Women Were Dragons is a surprisingly boring book. It was the sort of book that for maybe the last third every time the narrator announced a new chapter I thought, Really, this is still going on? The problem here primarily lies in the fact that even with literal dragons, the stakes are really low. There’s not a lot of tension. No one ever feels in danger. And the book is super repetitive. The language and the scenes are used over and over again. The scene where Alex first sees a dragon as a young girl is re-hashed half a dozen times or so, down to every detail without revealing anything new. Smaller actions are described the same way over and over again. Characters (including the dragons) are constantly bringing their hands to their faces or clasping their hands over their hearts. Knots and descriptions of knots are given place of prominence throughout without any payoff at the end. Oh, and the end! Aside from the fact this book begins to feel like it never ends, it also has a terrible ending! A new character is introduced at the very end who then dies immediately and then we spend a lot of time hearing about how Alex feels about this. And then we’re told a bunch of other stuff and then the book (finally) ends.

Lest I get overly mean in this review, I will end it here. My disappointment is made greater by the fact that this story could have been so much more exciting and it’s just…not.

One last super petty note: I did not realize that I might be pronouncing the word “shone” differently from my American friends and neighbours but the way both narrators in the audiobook said it drove me crazy because every single time (and it was used a lot) I was thrown out of the world of the story and left practising how I would say it. I pronounce S-H-O-N-E so that it rhymes with “dawn”; they pronounced it so that it rhymes with “bone”. Is this more of a regional thing (the book is set in Wisconsin) or an Americanism? Please tell me how you say this word!

21 thoughts on “(Audio) Book Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill”

  1. What a shame – this sounds like an interesting concept that didn’t live up to its potential at all. And I have noticed that thing about authors wanting me to sympathise with mothers irrespective of their behaviour in other books – I remember that in Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, which I read years ago, the author wanted me to believe that the mother’s parenting was fine even though it was clearly neglectful and possibly abusive, just because she was a mum. It’s something that annoys me a lot when I come across it.

    As for “shone”, for me it’s got a short vowel sound – so it rhymes with “don” or “con”, rather than either “dawn” or “bone”. (English is a strange language!)

    1. It was far more disappointing because it had such high potential. I think there is lots of interesting conversation to be had around mothers and how we judge them or hold them to certain standards in terms of what society forgives but none of that is explored here.

      I think I understand the difference you’re describing in pronouncing don vs dawn but…I pronounce them exactly the same way! Just goes to show there’s no one right answer when it comes to English!

  2. Ha, that depends on how you pronounce dawn! When I worked in London I briefly worked beside a girl called Dawn and she insisted I pronounced it wrong though I could never hear that I pronounced it differently from the English people. I definitely pronounce shone like dawn though. This sounds like she had a good idea but couldn’t turn it into a good story – pity.

    1. Lou is English so that tracks! I’m imagining that they would say don with a very short o sound, almost more like dun, maybe? But my pronunciation of both is the same.

    1. I am learning way more about accents than I expected! To me, shone rhymes with all of those except horn which definitely has an r sound in it!

    1. Would it be fair to say that’s a regional pronunciation? The book is set in Wisconsin so kind of in your broader region, right? Most Americans I know here are from the west coast and say it the way I do but maybe they’ve adapted to a Canadian pronunciation?

      I don’t think you’d enjoy this so I’m happy to save you from reading it!

    2. Absolutely, I think it’s a regionalism. Slightly related, Neil Gaiman wrote in American Gods a main character from, I believe, Wisconsin, and Gaiman slips in all kinds of British words, such as trolly for a grocery cart.

    3. Funnily enough, I always forget that Gaiman is British. He seems very American to me but I also haven’t read a ton of his work.

    4. Wikipedia tells me that he both had an American wife and has lived in the US for many years. So I’d classify him as an Americanized Brit.

    5. That makes sense. On the other hand, it always blows my mind when Irvine Welsh doesn’t stay in Scotland, WHERE HE BELONGS. (He’s got a house in Chicago and one in Florida, I believe, but he defined Scotland for a generation with Trainspotting).

    6. What?? Irvine Welsh leaves Scotland? Although I could almost imagine an alternate version of Trainspotting set in Florida…

    7. I don’t want to buy into stereotypes but what I hear about Florida on the news isn’t really selling me on the place.

  3. Hmm the Shone thing is weird. I’ve never heard it pronounced any other way than rhyming with ‘dawn’, so that would definitely give me pause! It sounds like such a missed opportunity here. Very cool premise, but not well executed. Too bad.

    1. It’s a real pronunciation but not one I was familiar with so definitely stuck out to me every time they used it!

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