When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

The cover of When Women Were Dragons, with toy dragons set around it.

For Christine Blasey Ford, whose testimony triggered this narrative” – with this dedication, When Women Were Dragons hooked me.  And it kept me so all the way through.  There are myriad themes in this book, which I’ll get to.  But at its heart, this is a book about rage and women experiencing and living that rage. 

You will tell people that you did not raise me to be an angry woman, and that statement will be correct.  I was never allowed to be angry, was I? My ability to discover and understand the power of my own raging was a thing denied to me.  Until, at last, I learned to stop denying myself.”

So writes a housewife from Nebraska, shortly before she dragoned in 1898, according to the opening document of the novel.  An ordinary housewife, married to an abusive and terrible man, spontaneously transformed into a dragon and flew away.  Sporadic dragonings happened throughout history, but authorities quickly squashed any news or evidence regarding it.  Until April 25, 1955, when hundreds of thousands of women in the United States, mostly wives and mothers, all transformed into dragons throughout that day.  Homes physically destroyed, families ripped apart, and a number of men eaten or immolated by dragon fire – it was a day that could not possibly be forgotten.

That didn’t mean people wouldn’t try.  Our narrator, Alex Green, was a young girl when her aunt dragoned, leaving behind a baby girl of her own.  Alex’s parents took the girl in and quickly set to work convincing Alex that her cousin Beatrice was her sister and always had been. Alex was not to ask questions or say anything about the dragons (who had flown off and disappeared) or her aunt (who didn’t exist, after all) or anything related to either topic.  But Alex remembered.

At the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (infamous for its persecution of suspected Communists, giving us the likes of Joe McCarthy) sought to silence any attempt by scientists to explore the phenomenon in any greater depth.  Since the Mass Dragoning was too large to ignore, the government issued a brief, sanitized overview of the event, and then worked hard to make sure that everyone just let it drift in the fogs of history, out of sight, out of mind.  But there remained scientists determined to learn the truth.

The book follows Alex’s personal journey towards understanding, interspersed with testimony by the lead scientist hauled in front of HUAC. Barnhill does a great job of weaving in the cultural pressures to keep anything related to the feminine as quiet and hushed as possible. 

Dragoning is dangerous precisely because it is both closely tied to the feminine while also displaying emotions that are deemed distinctly unfeminine.  Rage is at the heart of dragoning, it seems.  Women’s rage over being kept in the home, of having little to no recourse against violent husbands or boyfriends, of being told that their sexuality should be limited to “wifely duties,” of constantly being told to take up less space, less, time, less sound.  A dragon is not less.  She is large.  She is strong.  She is powerful.  She can gobble up or incinerate those who would harm her.  She can come and go as she pleases.  She does not conform. 

In addition to these meditations on women’s circumscribed emotions and options in the 50s, dragoning serves as a metaphor for LGBTAQ+ experiences.  Many of the women who dragon saw it as a way to fully embrace their true selves.  The research papers sprinkled in make mention of dragons who people had previously seen as men.  Other individuals nearly dragoned, but in the end stayed human for a variety of reasons. Dragoning is both hugely public and intensely personal.

There was only one thing that kind of clanged for me in this book.  The dragons themselves.  By which I mean, the abilities and properties of being a dragon in this world wasn’t clear to me.  They seemed to be able to do and be whatever was most convenient for the moment.  While most dragons flew to remote places on Earth, some went into space, exploring the galaxy, apparently being able to fly well past the speed of light.  Maybe it’s all the sci-fi I’ve imbibed over my life, but for some reason, that irked me.  However, it is a very very very tiny thing in the grand scheme of an excellent book.  So to paraphrase the theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000 “just repeat to yourself it’s just a [book], I should really just relax!”

“You brought me here, gentlemen, in hopes of conquest – in an attempt to rein in this feminine largeness, to shrink it down and force it to acquiesce to your paternal control, to allow our culture to forget that any of this dragon business ever happened.  This, my friends, is an impossibility.  While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance.  Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been…

            “Personally, I think it’s rather marvelous.

So do I. 

Find it here

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Book The Daughter of Doctor Moreau set among green leaves and branches.

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells, is one of those stories where even if you haven’t read the book, you likely know the broad strokes of the plot: a crazed scientists conducts horrible experiments on a remote island, resulting in strange human/animal hybrids.  There have been movies and references and even a Simpsons parody. But you can ignore all of those and dive straight into Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s reimagining take, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.  It is a spellbinding tale, centering Doctor Moreau’s heretofore unknown daughter as she navigates the dangers coming her way. 

Carlota Moreau is a smart, stubborn, and curious young woman.  The natural child of Doctor Moreau, she has never traveled outside her father’s estate, Yaxaktun, in the remote Yucatán Peninsula. Her only human contacts are her father, his patron Hernando Lizalde, Ramona the servant woman, and the various mayordomos brought in to oversee the estate.  But those are far from her only companions.  There are a host of hybrids, the results of her father’s experiments, whom she knows and loves.

As our story begins, a new mayordomo, a British man named Montgomery Laughton arrives at Yaxaktun. The isolation of Yaxaktun, and the Yucatán in general, make it difficult to find hired help.  As Ramon explains to Carlota, it is not a place for people who want to be found.  But that seems to suit Mr. Laughton just fine. 

Six years later, however, more newcomers arrive at the remote estate and very quickly, the isolated routines of Yaxaktun begin to fall apart. There is more to this island her father created, and Carlota will seek the truth – whatever the cost. 

The book switches between Carlota and Montgomery’s perspective.  This effectively gives us a good background into both and understanding for their motives.  At times, the story loops back on itself so we get both characters’ insights into the exact same scene.  Had this been overdone, it might have been frustrating, but Moreno-Garcia uses it sparingly and to great effect. 

I first read Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s The Gods of Jade and Shadow.  I quickly fell in love with her writing style and her characters.  I’ve since read The Beautiful Ones, Certain Dark Things, Mexican Gothic, Untamed Shore, and Velvet was the Night, her previous book before The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Pick any of them and jump right in – they don’t disappoint! Moreno-Garcia does a fantastic job of creating amazing settings for her characters to inhabit and giving her heroines (and other characters) a plethora of emotions, motives, virtues, and vices.  Weaving in romantic story lines can be tricky, but she handles them deftly and beautifully. 

I also really appreciate the glimpses of Mexican history that she peppers through her novels.  In the background of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, the rebellion of Mayans against European and Mexican forces lurks, with some of the hybrids whispering the name of the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) leader.  While Carlota has the privilege of long ignoring politics and social issues, the hybrids do not.

And where Wells focused on issues of the search for knowledge and abuse in the name of science and man’s desire to dominate his environment and the creatures around him, Moreno-Garcia uses the hybrids to dissect issues of colonialism, racism, and labor exploitation.  As Hernando Lizalde explains early on in the book, he is only supporting Doctor Moreau’s experiments because the hybrids could be the key to the labor issues on the haciendas.  The Indians, he explains, can no longer be trusted in light of the rebellion, and with the end of the slave trade and the poor track record of European laborers, a “home grown” labor force designed for exploitation seems to be the perfect ticket.  While the doctor agreed to such a use, it is clear he has his own motives for his experiments.  But are they any better?   

Overall, I highly recommend The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.  And then the rest of her books. 

Find it online here.

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston

Book cover of Master of Poisons with a tiger lily flower on the right.

I love entering new fantasy worlds.  As terrible as I am with learning new languages, I enjoy puzzling out a society’s hierarchy, the slang, the idioms, the power structures, religious/spiritual beliefs, etc. Andrea Hairston creates a fantastic world to puzzle through. I’ve written previously that I’m also a big fan of fantasy based on something other than medieval Europe, and Master of Poisons, with its African foundation, checks that box too. 

“We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of imminent destruction, we refuse to believe in any gods but our own.  Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky?  So we twist every story to preserve our faith.”

Djola is the Master of Poisons for the Arkhysian Empire and the right-hand man of Emperor Azizi.  He has spent the last twenty years trying to convince the Emperor and the rest of his council that if the empire didn’t start caring for the environment and make the necessary, but difficult, changes, the consequences would be dire.  Slowly at first, and then more quickly, poison deserts expanded, destroying forests and rivers and displacing people.  But:

“As long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night win, everybody promised to change – tomorrow or next week.  Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust.  Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible.  Who could fight the wind?”

The allegory for our current climate crisis is clear.  Djola’s frustration is one shared by anyone who paid attention to scientists since the 70s regarding greenhouse gasses.  No one wants to make the necessary changes, which might require some short-term pain or disruptions, to prevent disaster 50-100 years down the road.  But once they start living with the actual effects of their inaction, they become paralyzed, thinking that there is no way to change their trajectory and they are doomed.  They still don’t seem to understand that even if they can’t go back to a better time, they can at least work to prevent things from getting worse.  Instead, they’ll listen to short-term cons that might provide an illusion of improvement, but create even more long-term crises.  Djola finds himself exiled, searching for magic that might finally solve the problem.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Awa already has a significant connection to alternate spirit realms.  With an affinity for bees, Awa can make journeys into Smokeland, which creates dangers for her.  Sold off by her father at age 12, Awa is all too aware of society’s views of women, non-binary folks, and non-male magic users.  Thankfully, she was sold to a group of griots (storytellers), who help her develop her skills. 

Overall, Master of Poisons is a fascinating world.  Or worlds, when you consider the Smokelands.  I also really appreciated that these characters aren’t solving the problem overnight.  Years can pass between chapters or segments of the book and characters still aren’t even sure where to start.  In addition to the climate issue, Master of Poisons also tackles issues of race, gender, empire, and family.

In a lot of ways, though, this was a book that I felt more like I wanted to like rather than one I actually did like.  There were a lot of things that still seemed a little unclear or that I didn’t quite gel with.  It’s possible that part of that reason is that the climate situation is too close to reality and knowing that there isn’t a magic spell that could turn things around is disheartening. And yet, the point of the story is that even in a world of magic, fixing systemic problems requires a lot of work, dedication, and cooperation between diverse groups. 

I felt like this was a stand-alone book, which I appreciate it. Series are wonderful, but sometimes I just want a complete story in one book.  Master of Poisons is the type of book will probably benefit from multiple re-reads.  So while it wasn’t my favorite, I’m glad I read it and maybe at some point, I’ll be back to visit it again. 

Find it online here.

The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath

Cover of The Devil's Revolver

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a free e-copy of The Devil’s Revolver for the purposes of review.  That doesn’t change my opinions, but I probably wouldn’t have read this/been aware of it otherwise.  Just in case that counts as influence for some. 

American western meets fantasy is a fun world that The Devil’s Revolver drops us into.  We meet Hettie Alabama, a 17-year-old young woman preparing to enter a shooting competition to earn her family some money.  She lives with her parents, her younger sister Abby, and “Uncle” Jeramiah.

Things haven’t been easy for the family.  Hettie’s older brother, Paul, died protecting her from knife-wielding stranger years earlier.  Money is tight.  And perhaps most concerning for Hettie is Abby’s habit of slipping out of the house to wander down to the river to talk with friends no one else can see or hear. Such a habit is soon to garner unwanted attention.

Hettie can’t do much about two of those things, but she is a talented shooter. She enters the competition, determine to tackle the money issue.  Little does she know, however, that this decision will set into motion a chain of events that will lead her all over the West with a revolver that doesn’t miss, doesn’t run out of ammo, and doesn’t shoot without a cost.

McGrath does a splendid job introducing us to the rules of this world without any kind of exposition dump.  Within a few pages, we learn that magic is a regular part of life, but not everyone is gifted.  Most people use talismans and protection spells, but those cost money.  A government division seeks out children who show signs of being gifted, another concern for Hettie.  It seems clear that Abby has some kind of power, but no one in the family wants to risk her coming onto the government’s radar.  There are magical monsters roaming the terrain and plenty of human ones as well.  Aside from the magic, though, much of the rest is familiar to any Westerns fans. 

I really liked the character of Hettie.  While a talented shooter and a dedicated sister, she also still acts like most seventeen-year-olds.  There were a few situations where she makes choices that, as a reader, we can see are tricky or a trap, but if it was me at 17 and I didn’t know I was a heroine in a book, I would’ve likely done the exact same.  She can be rash and hot-headed, but her heart is in the right place, even with a demon-possessed revolver in hand. The other characters that move into her orbit are fun and interesting as well, but Hettie is definitely my favorite.

There are some aspects of the world and the titular revolver that remain unexplained or feel a bit underdeveloped, but I think it’s because this is just the first book in a series and you have to leave some questions and loose ends for the next story to take. 

Overall, this was a fun read with interesting characters and a cool take on Westerns.  Worth checking out!

Find it online here.

Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

The book Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman surrounded by green leaves and pink and white flowers.

I rarely read short stories, but Fragile Things reminded me why I should.  This collection of thirty-one short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman was a treasure trove of tales, some of which I wished were full novels (which one did became). Others were perfectly designed to be just a glimpse of a secret world, hidden just under the reality we think we know.

This also coincided with me getting to see Neil Gaiman perform (read? speak? I’m not quite sure what the proper descriptor is) on tour last week.  It was an amazing experience and if you ever get the chance to see him live, I strongly urge you to take it. Enjoying a pre-show dinner, my friend and I happened to be sitting next to a pair of sisters who were also going to attend the show. When they asked if I could take their picture, I not only said yes, but pulled my copy of Fragile Things from my purse so they could use it as a prop. It pays to always have a book in your bag!

I’d seen Neil once before, when Norse Mythology came out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect this time, since there wasn’t a specific new book or project to promote.  But that didn’t matter.  He read a short story and some poems of his, he answered questions the audience wrote on index cards before the show, and talked about writing and reading and the power of stories.  Both times that I’ve heard him speak, I’ve come away wanting to do nothing more than grab a pen and paper and start writing.  What I would write, I have no idea.  But ideas are bouncing around and maybe someday they’ll find their way onto a page.

In the meantime, though, a few thoughts on Fragile Things.  I won’t go over each individual entry, but one of the things I enjoyed was the introduction, where Neil explained the genesis of each story and includes a bonus story within those descriptions.  The introduction’s an interesting insight into ideas incarnating into something tangible. 

I was then hooked right off the bat by “A Study in Emerald”, a Sherlock Holmes story set in an H.P. Lovecraftian world.  (This was one of the stories that I wished could be a full novel.) Even though I’ve technically never read either a Sherlock Holmes or H.P. Lovecraft novel, I really enjoyed both. (I have seen enough Star Trek episodes with Data playing Sherlock Holmes on the Holodeck, so that counts, right?)

Next, as someone who read The Chronicles of Narnia over and over as a kid, I really appreciated “The Problem of Susan.” Anyone who feels like Susan was mistreated by Lewis can find some characters here who share that righteous indignation. There are also several poems sprinkled throughout this collection, which again made me want to break out some of my old notebooks and start trying to write again.

I found Neil through Tori Amos and her numerous references to him in many of her songs.  By delightful quirk of fate or intentional ordering of the universe, she performed at the same theater I saw Neil at just a few days later, which I also attended.  (And I ended up sitting in almost the exact same seats just on opposite sides of the theater for both.) It was amazing and wonderful and magical to be able to bask in the presence of two of my favorite creators in such close proximity.  Fragile Things also served as a bridge, as two of the entries were character sketches he wrote for two of Tori’s albums – Strange Little Girls and Scarlet’s Walk.  You don’t need to know the albums or be fans of Tori to get them, but as someone who did obsessively go through the liner notes and has listened to the albums numerous times, it was a satisfying bonus. 

I could go on and on, talking about the what happened to Miss Finch, or the short sequel to American Gods that concludes this collection. But suffice it to say that this was a superb group of stories. If you like short story collections, pick this up.  If you like Neil, pick this up.  If you’ve never read anything by Neil, or if you think you don’t like short stories, pick this up.  Even if you hit a tale you don’t particularly like, you’ll be on to the next and visiting a whole new world. The only downside is having to leave them.

**Content warning: the story “Keepsakes and Treasures” deals with the sexual abuse and rape of the narrator’s mother and child sex abuse, within the first four or five pages. The main characters of Mr. Alice and Mr. Smith return in the final story, but if you need to skip this one, it won’t destroy your understanding of the last one.

Find it online:

Fragile Things