Book Review

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Genre | Fantasy
Page #s | 352
Publishing Date | May 2022

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours, except for its most seminal 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. 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.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of this astonishing event: a mother more protective than ever; an absentee father; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and watching her beloved cousin Bea become dangerously obsessed with the forbidden.

In this timely and timeless speculative novel, award-winning author Kelly Barnhill boldly explores rage, memory, and the tyranny of forced limitations. When Women Were Dragonsexposes a world that wants to keep women small—their lives and their prospects—and examines what happens when they rise en masse and take up the space they deserve.


This magical realism historical novel was slow-to-start, but stick with it! When Women Were Dragons packs a punch, conveying powerful messages about patriarchy, feminism, and political silencing into a story about a young lesbian woman growing up in a world that refuses to acknowledge that women can dragon.

Yes, that means women turn into dragons! Here, dragoning represents a woman’s inner rage at being constricted in a patriarchal world as well as her inner joy at being fully herself. It’s beautiful, scary, and complicated, and the book’s setting in the 1950s highlights the limited options for women while also feeling annoyingly timeless. The more things change, etc.

At first, I could not fathom how this fictional society managed to ignore something as huge as women turning into dragons, but parallels are explicitly drawn between this and other female experiences that we ignore, like menstruation, menopause, and miscarriages. The absurdity of ignoring dragons highlights the absurdity of our own world and the things we do not speak about.

I read this book for a book club, and it is one of those rare books that was both widely enjoyed AND provided a lot of conversational fodder. (I don’t know about you, but usually enjoyed books fade away after “I liked it” while books that weren’t enjoyed can be talked about endlessly.) I still think about it months after reading it, and I’m eager to read more of Barnhill’s work!

Small note: I do want to point out something I appreciated in this story, that while it is female-focused, dragoning is not bioessentialist. Hurray for feminist texts that are not trans-exclusionary!

Who Do I Recommend This Book To?

If you liked The Power, then When Women Were Dragons is likely going to be right up your alley!

Check out our Queer Lil Library for more book recommendations and reviews!

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