Book: No Man of Woman Born (Rewoven Tales) by Ana Mardoll
Age/Genre: Fantasy/Fiction, High Fantasy, short story collection
Preferred Reading Environment: A tree house or hidden fort that you’ve turned into a secret fantasy world of your own (Living room forts totally count!)
Reading Accoutrements: some mead! And other medeval delights, like turkey legs or something.
Content Notes: Every story in this book has content notes of their own, which I really appreciate. Among them include violence, misgendering, and death of family members
I found No Man of Woman Born in a Twitter thread of gender-nonconforming authors. It caught my eye because I already followed the author, Ana Mardoll, on Twitter. The concept of this collection of short stories is that the characters fulfill gendered prophecies in unexpected ways. The intro goes into the inspiration behind this idea, but I don’t think any fantasy lovers will be surprised that Eowyn from Tolkien’s Return of the King is a huge influencer.
Much like the collection of short stories with gender-diverse pronouns that I reviewed, this collection was written because Mardoll wanted to put stories in the world that showed other gender-nonconforming people. She longed to see herself represented, so she created this representation so others would have it. I love this concept, so I picked up the ebook and dove right in.
Before I talk about some of the individual stories, I want to talk about the collection as a whole. I love how thoughtfully this was put together. The introduction clearly states the inspiration and what the reader can expect. Each story has content notes that prepare the reader for potentially difficult subjects and situations that they’ll encounter. The front page of each story also notes neopronouns that are used in the story, along with their pronunciation.
Many of these stories have people who use pronouns besides those that are commonly accepted in everyday conversation. These include kie/kir (pronounced kee/keer), xie/xer, and nee/ner. I appreciated the pronunciation guides and also enjoyed the opportunity to get used to alternate pronouns. Kie/kir was especially difficult for me because I kept thinking it was a name instead of a pronoun. In fantasy literature particularly, there are so many names that are outside our common vernacular that to me, unfamiliar words associated with people just seem like they’re names. So this was a bit of a challenge for me – though like I said, a welcome one. It made me think about the ambiguity of pronouns and how a lot of their usefulness from a sentence structure perspective stems from familiarity rather than inherent clarity.
Okay, now that I’ve said all that, let’s talk about some fantasy stories! The stories in this collection are high fantasy, meaning they take place in worlds very different from our own. There are kings, dragons, traveling clans, faeries, and more. The full title of this collection is No Man of Woman Born (Rewoven Tales). The “Rewoven Tales” addendum refers to the fact that most (maybe all, though some were unfamiliar to me) are retellings of existing fairy tales and stories. There’s a sword in a stone plotline, a sleeping beauty rewrite, and many well-known fantasy tropes and plot devices. The most prominent plot device, of course, being that of the prophecy.
As usual, I’m not going to talk about each and every story in this collection. I’ll just discuss some of the ones I liked most or found most interesting.
“His Father’s Son” follows Nocien, a young orphan training to avenge his family, who was attacked by a warlord. The story opens up showing Nocien among the people who have sheltered, raised, and helped train him since he was separated from his family. We learn of the prophecy that caused the warlord to target Nocien’s family and slowly learn the reasons that Nocien is an unexpected exception to the prophecy. Nocien also asks one of the questions that comes up in a lot of prophecy plotlines: “Would all these people have died if the prophesiers had kept their mouths shut?” I loved the characters in this story. My only complaint was that since this collection leans toward the happier side of fairy tales, I thought part of the ending was a bit convenient. But fantasies don’t have to be brutal and heartbreaking to be powerful, and Nocien deserved some happiness, so I can’t complain too much.
“Daughter of Kings” introduces us to Finn, the daughter of a king whose heir is dependent on a prophecy. This is the story with the “sword in a stone” plot point that I mentioned. I loved this story because it had a fun witch with a sense of humor, and hints at a romantic subplot that was cute, but didn’t take away from the main storyline. This story built mystery partially by telling the story from the perspective of a character who is perceived differently by the outside world. We see the character as they are, whereas the rest of the world doesn’t. So when certain characters address Finn, it’s a bit confusing at first because there’s a disconnect. I feel like this was done really well, in that it brought up questions but wasn’t confusing, and everything was clear by the end.
“Early to Rise” is the sleeping beauty retelling, and I think it might have been my favorite. It shows that the way people treat each other can have consequences and that gender doesn’t have to be binary or static. I also loved that the characters in this story (and others in this collection) are, for the most part, completely willing to accept people for who they are even if they don’t completely understand them. No one makes a big deal of Claude’s gender identity, even though Claude themself doesn’t completely understand every aspect. I think this is a great point to illustrate the pressure that is put on gender-conforming people to have all the answers about why they are the way they are and “how they know.” As a cis-woman, I’ve never been asked how I know I am a woman, or what makes me a woman. I believe people of all genders deserve that respect.
This was a fun collection of fantasy stories that used familiar plotlines and literary devices to foster familiarity with characters who aren’t historically common in fantasy. I loved reading it, and I think it’s a great collection for fantasy lovers who want to see new spins on beloved tales.
What was the last book you bought because of social media? Share in the comments!