a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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When Women Were Dragons (2022)
Kelly Barnhill

In this fantasy/alternative history novel, many women literally turn into dragons in the 1950's. It is clear to the reader that the sexism of that era is responsible for that magical transformation, and for the author's obvious (and understandable) anger about it.

A major theme throughout the book is knots. They are mentioned in practical situations where one would expect them to arise, idiomatically in expressions like "Gordian knot", as adjectives to describe a character's expression. More importantly, the narrator, a school girl named Alex, notices that her mother is obsessed with knots, and the mathematical discipline of knot theory which studies them:

(quoted from When Women Were Dragons)

My mother loved string She loved how a single strand could twist and loop into infinite patterns and infinite possibilities -- whole universes could be tangled in a single threat. She made diagrams of each knot in a little notebook that I was not allowed to look at by myself, with corresponding calculations and algebraic expressions that defined the ways in which we wobble, loop, twist, and elbow intersected, interpolated, and bent inside themselves. I didn't understand how the equations works or what they meant. She promised she'd explain the mathematics of it to me someday.

Her mother was kept from a career in mathematics due to her gender, and so her "hobby" of looking at knots could just reflect her continuing interest in the subject. But, there is a clear suggestion that her work with knots involves magic which can protect her loved ones and even make money:

(quoted from When Women Were Dragons)

"So, there she was, your mother, the very smartest nd best in her whole class, a shining star, and she applies to graduate school to study mathematics, and they don't take her. They say no. Not because she's not smart enough, but simply because she was aa girl. Well, now. does that sound fair to you?

I didn't say anything. But I don't think my aunt was actually talking to me, not really.

"So instead, your darling mama became a clerk at your dad's bank . With her algorithms aand slide rules, her lightning fast figuring. And guess what, she was amazing. She was a sorceress with numbers. She could make any fund -- literally any one -- grow like magic. . She tied spreadsheets together like mystical knots and made numbers expand simply by looking at them."

Alex, too, is interested in math and physics. (Rather than making drawings to entertain herself when she is alone, she creates mathematical word problems about planes and trains, enjoying the challenge of making sure they are neither too easy nor too hard.) And, she is also talented, able to succeed in her classes without really trying. Unfortunately, her academic skill causes trouble at school. At a parent-teacher conference, her mother is told:

(quoted from When Women Were Dragons)

We've had to stop posting the exam scores, because the boys see her loafing in class, and yet still claiming that top score, with no thought at all to their feelings. I ask you, what does one do with a girl with so little regard for others?

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Works Similar to When Women Were Dragons
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal
  2. Threshold by Sara Douglass
  3. Your Magic or Mine by Ann Macela
  4. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  5. Leaning Towards Infinity by Sue Woolfe
  6. Ada's Room by Sharon Dodo Otoo
  7. Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda
  8. The Peculiarities by David Liss
  9. Murder, She Conjectured by Alex Kasman
  10. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
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GenreHistorical Fiction, Fantasy,
MotifFemale Mathematicians,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)