If I’d been a sixth grader when I read Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons, I would have hung up a poster of the cover in my room. It has feminists, dragons, and fantasy world-building in a comforting font which envelops you in perfectly ordered chapters and beautifully adjusted paragraphs. In other words, it’s a warm hug for struggling teenage girls and adult women alike.

I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be so when I first began. There’s a glaring “Oppressed. Unleashed. Reborn.” on the front cover along with the title in a slightly tawdry font, all on a dark green-violet background, and an open dragon eye on the bottom left. Sometimes, it’s disconcertingly hard not to judge books by their covers. But I’m glad I opened it, and gladder to have let it invite me in once I began reading.

Dragons and ‘dragoning’

The plot of When Women Were Dragons is pretty straightforward. Set in the mid-1950’s, the book follows Alex, the protagonist, as she manoeuvers around the difficulties of growing up as a girl in the 50s. They’re mostly same old, at least when it comes to tropes – absent father, sick mother, schoolwork, loving a girl in a homophobic world, being viewed with constant scrutiny and disdain as a woman, and dealing with the confusing and chaotic feelings that growing up entail. Additionally, of course, there’s the problem of the dragons. The dragons and ‘dragoning’ – the process wherein a woman spontaneously converts into a dragon and flies away leaving her family and old world behind – are embarrassing things, treated much like menstruation, that society constantly attempts to sweep under the rug, and eventually, of course, trips over. Alex struggles with people she loves leaving her, trying her hardest to fit in.

But as elementary as the plot sounds initially, its execution is fantastic. Barnhill’s knack for world-building shines impressively. To trust your story, to write a world as if you’ve lived and breathed in it is an expected bedrock, but to see it tower over itself so well was a charming experience. I didn’t want the illusion to end, and if given a choice, I would absolutely live in this world in which I could dragon almost at will.

While that might say something about me, it says a whole lot more about how inviting Barnhill’s world is. She intricately blends the act of dragoning, and more importantly, the desire to dragon and its consequent suppression into the ‘real’ world through Alex. The book might be a tad bit on the longer side than might have seemed necessary for the plot, and that might be a result of the outpouring of details that construct this world, very few of them boring or needless. Barnhill leaves no stone unturned.

A clearly, undoubtedly feminist read

“Outside, my mother smiled and my father smiled, and Beatrice and I learned how to beam happily while thinking of nothing.” The dragoning itself is, of course, marvelous. What caught my eye in When We Were Dragons, however, were not the flashy bits, but the protagonist herself, churning violently in her ordinariness while others around her learn to let go, fight back, or spread their wings. It’s the fantasy version of a girl today who’s too embarrassed to call herself a feminist, and ends up suffocating herself.

Hardworking as she is, there’s no grandiosity to Alex’s thoughts or reactions. The protagonist of the book isn’t really heroic at all. She does nothing more than live her own life. And maybe that’s why it’s so incredibly easy for the reader to warm up to her – she’s a perfectly passive narrator, taking what she gets and doing what she can.

The book is clearly, undoubtedly, a feminist read, all about women finally taking up the space they deserve, and letting go of what they were supposed to act like. It’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, which made me a tad weary, but, once again, When Women Were Dragons is less about the story itself, and a whole lot more about how it’s told.

I’ll flip through the book again sometime, if only for the comforting familiarity of the voice, for it to take me back to a sixth-grade feminist utopia where hope still existed, and there was never a desire to numb yourself. The plot keeps playing with knots – her mother was obsessed with them, their intricacies, their mathematical implications and their abilities. It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in the entanglements Barnhill creates herself. While When Women Were Dragons has its flaws – its length, an excess of detail that might or might not work, and ‘scientific’ papers that lose out on a little flavour – oh, it’s fun. It’s a relief. Much like it is to be a dragon.

When Women Were Dragons, Kelly Barnhill, Bonnier.