Making Women Out of Men: Welcome to Dorley Hall by Alyson Greaves

Posted 1st September 2022 by Sia in Queer Lit, Reviews / 4 Comments

Welcome to Dorley Hall by Alyson Greaves
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Speculative Fiction
Representation: Trans MC, F/F, minor nonbinary characters
PoV: 3rd-person, past-tense, dual PoVs
ISBN: B09ZNRWN1Q
Goodreads
five-stars

Mark Vogel is like the older brother Stefan Riley never had, until one day he disappears, and Stefan has to adapt to life without him. But, one year later, when he runs into a girl who looks near-identical to Mark, Stefan becomes obsessed. He discovers that other boys have disappeared, too, dozens over the years, most of them students of the Royal College of Saint Almsworth, many of them troubled or unruly before their disappearance.

What is happening to these boys? Who are the handful of women on campus who bear a striking resemblance to some of those who went missing? And what is the connection to the mysterious Dorley Hall?
Stefan works hard to get into the Royal College for one reason and one reason only: to find out exactly what happened to the women who live at Dorley Hall, and to get it to happen to him, too.

A closeted trans girl attempts to infiltrate a secret underground forced feminisation programme.

Content note: this story engages with some reasonably dark topics, including but not limited to torture, manipulation, dysphoria, nonconsensual surgery, and kidnapping. While it isn't intended to be a dark or dystopian story, the perspective characters are carrying a lot of baggage, and the exploration of the premise might be triggering for trans readers.

Highlights

~screechingly hilarious coffee mugs
~terrifyingly convincing mindfuckery
~gender is complicated
~watch out for the tasers
~if you go into the basement, you’re not coming out as you

:I use male pronouns for Stefan throughout this review, because that is what the character insists upon in the book:

I have no idea what genre Welcome to Dorley Hall falls into – it’s definitely nothing like the SFF I usually read – but I devoured all 500+ pages in 24 hours, and despite it being a proper mindfuck, I bloody loved it.

A chance encounter in his childhood leads Stefan to the conclusion that an amazing, top-secret transition program for trans women is being run out of a nearby college. It’s pretty out-there, but he can’t figure out how else to reconcile the gorgeous women he’s glimpsed with the young men who keep going missing from the area – given that the women bear a striking resemblance to those same men.

They could be sisters, or cousins, or something. But as a closeted trans woman himself, Stefan can’t help hoping that his wild theory is correct.

Then he gets to find out for himself.

Under less-than-ideal circumstances.

See, the ‘forced feminization’ mentioned in the blurb? I wasn’t sure what it meant at first: turns out, it’s exactly what it sounds like – forcing (cis) men to be women. The program running in the basements of Dorley Hall? There’s an…organisation, let’s call it…that is pulling men off the streets and transforming them into women. With drugs and brainwashing and drastic, hardcore surgery. Extremely non-consensually.

UM?!

I was very glad this wasn’t an evil kink thing, but the goal is, to be honest, even harder to fathom – and since figuring out wtf is going on is such a driving force of the first part of the book, I’ve put it under a spoiler tag. View Spoiler » The people who come out of the program don’t always consider themselves women – some identify as nonbinary or gender-nonconforming – but they are all very, very firm on their not being men any more.

It would be so easy for this premise to devolve into a confusing mess, but Greaves wields her pen like a scalpel; every stroke is considered, deliberate, and masterfully controlled. It’s clear an enormous amount of thought has gone into this book, and it absolutely pays off, because, weird as the premise is? Welcome to Dorley Hall is simply incredible.

An enormous part of that is the characters; I feel like it’s been quite a while since I ran into characters who were so immediately and powerfully real, who I could absolutely believe were actual living, breathing people. Stefan comes across perfectly as a trans woman who has been isolated from the wider world and the queer community in particular; I thought his insistence on using male pronouns – and his reasoning behind that choice – did a brilliant job at driving that home, and an equally good job at demonstrating that being trans is messy and complicated and different for everyone. (I don’t care what they are or how you feel about them; if a trans/nonbinary person tells you their pronouns, you use those pronouns, not whatever you think they should be using.) More, Stefan acts as a much-needed contrast to our other PoV character, Christine, a near-graduate of the Dorley Hall program and a passionate believer in its worth and efficacy.

It’s probably alarming how many times I needed Stefan to point out that x, y or z was immensely fucked-up, honestly. Greaves’ writing, the story, and most of all Christine and her sisters are terrifyingly convincing; I definitely found myself nodding along to their philosophy and justifications far too often.

Christine and the wide cast of secondary characters are all fascinating, because – they’re women. They’re very, very normal young women. They’re all different, with different interests, views, and fashion preferences – and if you didn’t know, you’d never know.

Except for all the talk about practicing womanhood, the fingerprint-locks on the doors, and the brainstorming sessions about how to mindfuck the boys in the basement. Except for those things – totally normal young women!

Christine is an immensely sympathetic character – they all are, she and her sisters, with their mundane and significantly-less-mundane daily issues, their debates over dresses, the make-up practice, the coffee dates with a friend’s girlfriend, attending protests against a gross professor on campus… Greaves immerses you in their lives, and before you know what’s happened you’ve become fiercely attached to all of them; Christine in particular, of course, with all her frantic juggling of secrets and trying to help Stefan and a developing romance that I waved pom-poms for.

These are women who are unambiguously women, who the reader ‘should’ pity but who would spit that pity back in your face. They’re women who are united in their passion not just to become flawless women, but to become good people. And that part of it is…bizarrely wonderful?

I’m just – it would be so easy for this to be a terrible parody of itself. And it isn’t. It’s unbelievably immersive and compelling, but it’s also thoughtful, pointed, and exactingly self-aware. I’ve spent weeks dissecting its approach to gender, and I’m grateful that Greaves doesn’t, anywhere, push one idea of ‘this is how gender works’ anywhere in the story. On the one hand, we have a trans MC; more, a trans person who is the kind of trans that cis people find the easiest to understand – someone who wants/needs to go from one end of the binary (AMAB) to the other (female), as opposed to the many other ways there are to be trans. And on the other hand, we have a whole cast of characters whose gender identity is way harder to neatly label. People who were forced to transition from one gender to another – but who genuinely identify as their new gender now. Some of these characters consider themselves trans, and some don’t; either way, they don’t fit neatly into any niche I know of. We don’t typically keep ‘forcibly transitioned’ around as a label!

The idea that gender can be forcibly changed is – well, not a widely accepted one. We’re against conversion therapy because it’s torture, but we also know that it doesn’t work. Gender and gender identity may change many times over a person’s lifetime, but most of us are pretty damn sure that those changes can’t be imposed.

But the central premise of Welcome to Dorley Hall is that, actually, they can. Albeit with torture, mutilation, and very hardcore brainwashing. Which, in fairness, is a set-up that I don’t think has been tested in the real world (I fucking hope it hasn’t)…so I guess we can’t swear that it wouldn’t work?

Um.

It might be better to say – as many of the graduates of Dorley Hall do – that a person can choose their gender. Because when push comes to shove, the women of Dorley Hall all reached a point where they had to choose to be women…or give up and ‘wash out’. It wasn’t a fair choice, at all – the narrative and characters are all very clear on that – but I suspect Greaves’ point (if she is in fact making one, beyond ‘gender is complicated and there is no one-size-fits-all’) is that it’s the choice that’s the important part. It doesn’t work if you don’t make that choice and embrace your new gender.

But equally, it’s clearly not that simple, or trans people wouldn’t exist. And they very much do. Stefan’s existence contradicts the underlying premise of Dorley Hall in a way I think none of the characters (including Stefan) have realised yet (to be fair, they all have a lot going on, and even the people running the show haven’t revealed the gender theory model they’re working with, if indeed they have one) and is one of the many things I’m excited to see handled in the next book.

Which is all to say, there’s no one theory of gender underpinning the story. On that front, Greaves clearly has her hands up, going ‘it’s complicated’. And you know, I appreciate that immensely. It’s the only take that I could ever be perfectly happy with.

Welcome to Dorley Hall is a wonderfully written, addictive, immensely compelling novel that at first glance shouldn’t work – but absolutely does. It superbly handles all the themes it tackles (and plays with), and I could not find one flaw in it. Even the parts that horrified me delighted me, if that makes sense, and I rabidly adore Stefan, Christine, and most of the other Sisters. I’ve already chalked up the sequel as one of my most anticipated reads of 2023!

I need so many more people to read this one. And then come shriek about it with me!

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4 responses to “Making Women Out of Men: Welcome to Dorley Hall by Alyson Greaves

  1. Samantha Bartell

    I have had the pleasure of reading this story as chapters are posted online and you are absolutely correct this is one of the best things written. And if you’ve only read what is printed well let me tell you things are just getting better and better. Alyson is insane, I have no clue how she does it but for her last update in just a few weeks she wrote 46 pages of perfection. Somehow every chapter is better than the next. I’ve also have had the pleasure of interacting with her on discord, as well as some other amazing authors, and she’s a wonderful person to chat with. Seeing her tease one of her fans about their pet theory and mess with them is a delightful laugh.

    If you haven’t read them already she has two other amazing works. Show Girl which she is in the process of editing, which of course includes expanding the story, for publication and it’s turning an already great story into an even better one. Highly recommend. Her other work “Glow, Worm” is available online and while on hiatus it is fantastic and worth the read and I’m highly looking forward to her coming back to it. Fun thing to do is after reading those stories to look at the consensus chat’s in Dorley and you will see some familiar names popping up. Anyway it’s almost 4 am, I’m long overdue for bed.

    But it’s wonderful to see another person appreciating this masterpiece and your review was a joy to read.

    • Sia

      I’m definitely going to be looking up her other works! And in all likelihood signing up for her Patreon, because who could resist???

      And thank you so much – I’m so happy you liked the review!

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