No Man of Woman Born, by Ana Mardoll, is an anthology of reworked short fairy tales/fantasy stories about dragons and swords stuck wantonly into stones and prophecies, most of which are gender based. Mardoll is bisexual, on the ace-spectrum, transgender, and autistic and these stories very much reflect xer lived experience, assuming that their lived experience also had dragons and prophecies and polyamorous warrior clans, etc. Xie is also a very good writer.
I should note that I received this as a review copy, and that I’ve known Ana for quite a while and am friends with xer. I haven’t received any compensation for this review, and my opinions are honest and my opinions alone. They’re colored by my friendship with xer, of course, but they’re still true opinions.
Reworkings of traditional fairy tales are nothing new. There’s a million anthologies with their own spins on fairy tale retellings. They’re set in outer space, they’re set in modern times, everyone’s a witch of some sort, the bad guys are redeemed or are secretly working for the benefit of the good guys, there’s a bureau of fairy tale characters investigating other fairy tale characters, everything is feminist either earnestly or satirically. This specific volume of fairy tale retellings has a fairly unique spin: Each story features a protagonist who is trans, gender queer, nonbinary. There’s no Tragic Queers. Each story has both content notes/trigger warnings and neopronouns with pronunciation guides. It’s a very accessible set of stories that clearly outlines what to expect… which can be quite a relief as the reader doesn’t have to brace for the inevitable yet unexpected dead naming, shaming, threats, etc.
Part of the relatively recent push for “own voices” in writing and publishing is to enlarge the body of work that we get to enjoy, to experience stories we wouldn’t otherwise feel and experience; it’s to reflect ourselves and see ourselves as valid, as well as to see others and see their validity. “No Man of Woman Born” validates like hell. It looks out at people who are trans, who are gender queer, who are lost, who are building their own families, who are afraid of being shut out of their communities or families, who are brave, who are not brave, and says hey. It says, I see you. It says, you have a place in the world and you belong. It says, you can exist, it’s ok to exist, it’s ok to make room for yourself at the table and demand a place setting.
“Tangled Nets” is the first story, about a fisher and a dragon and community and fear. Also: there’s a witch who feels like a Patricia C. Wrede sort of witch, although not exactly. I mean this in a good way.
“King’s Favor” has an evil witch, and an herb witch, and a sexy knight. The sexy knight isn’t the focus of the story, but hey. Sexy knight. Small powers going up against great powers is the actual focus. You might be small, but you can still win.
“His Father’s Son” has a gender based prophecy and isn’t it great to live in modern times when we all have access to a million stories about prophecy and the lessons involved with trying to avoid them? You can’t buck a prophecy. This story is pretty violent and is another one about community. And the polyamorous warrior clans I mentioned.
“Daughter of Kings” is the Sword In The Stone one. I’m a sucker for Sword In The Stone stories, and you can thank Mary Stewart and her Merlin books for that. This story also has a wood witch, who’s the sword prompt. Sometimes people need their hints broadcast through a megaphone.
“Early to Rise” is a Sleeping Beauty take that points out some of the inherent weirdness of True Love’s Kiss for a teenager. The protagonist is also witty, charming, artistic, and gender queer, some days feeling male, some female, some neither or both or something else entirely.
“No Man of Woman Born” is another gender based prophecy, although there’s debate over whether the emphasis should be on man, woman, born, or some combination of the three. Uniquely among the stories, there’s a character who isn’t SURE whether he is male, female, or something else and is thinking about it very hard… a bit of representation I haven’t run across very often.
“The Wish-Giver” is very short, and I remember reading the kernal of it on Twitter, tweet by tweet. It’s about a dragon who can grant wishes, and the dearest wish of a Smol Child. It’s a pretty fluffy story, and a sweet end cap.
I read this book in a 3 hour chunk of time waiting for my kid as he went through the next step of screening for behavioral/developmental issues. It was a fantastic distraction from my fretting, and from my increasingly numb butt. The only downside was trying not to cry in public a few times. They were happy/satisfied tears though.