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When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a local/Twitter pal.

Throughout history, women have been able to turn into dragons, but in 1955, there was the Mass Dragoning. Thousands upon thousands of women turned into dragons at the same time: wings, fire-breathing, the whole lot. Some of them ate their husbands. Some of them just flew away, to the mountains, the sea, the great beyond.

This is a metaphor. Also, it isn’t, they really do turn into dragons.

Alex Green has one of the missing dragons-nee-women in her family, and the fallout shapes her entire life. In her proper small Catholic Wisconsin town, no one talks about dragons. No one wants to even acknowledge thinking about them, except for a few brave souls around the edges. Again, this is a metaphor. Also, it isn’t, it’s about dragons. They have talons, they set buildings on fire, they tear down walls, no really, literal walls. And Alex is fascinated, furious, torn, and her little cousin–now her sister–Beatrice–has a host of outsized emotions all her own that Alex has to help her manage. Because Beatrice and Alex are each all the other one has–that and a fierce librarian, some half-trustworthy pamphlets, and their own determination.

One of my favorite things about genre books that embrace their own genre nature is that their metaphors can be multi-layered, because they embrace the concrete. When Women Were Dragons is about women’s intellect, women’s emotions, women’s freedoms, and the ways the America of the 1950s and early 1960s stifled all those things. For sure. But also it’s about dragons with scales and shiny gold eyes, and the way that it manages its genre nature keeps its ground firm, means that it won’t get bogged down in one simple metaphor at the expense of other possibilities. There will be readers who want this book to be about sexuality–homosexuality, bisexuality–and it absolutely is, but not in an easy Dragons = The Gays way. And the same for transgender issues: this is not an easy Dragoning = Transition book. And you can tell that it’s not, because The Gays are right here in the book, and some of them become dragons and some do not. And there are trans women in this book, and some of them become dragons, and also some of them don’t.

So as with Tooth and Claw before it, but using a completely different set of approaches to what segment of history and what kind of dragons we’re talking about, When Women Were Dragons keeps a firm, sure voice in its period. It has beautifully passionate things to say about gender and sexuality and culture. It also wants to talk about, no shit, really, dragons. And I absolutely love that juxtaposition. This is one of the things genre does best.

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