No Man of Woman Born is a collection of short stories featuring prominent characters who do not identify as cisgender – there are trans princes, non-binary princesses, genderfluid royals whose family adapt pronouns used accordingly, and it’s beautiful. With a title taken from Shakespeare, and a prologue mentioning the infamous scene in which Tolkien’s Éowyn defies a gendered prophecy by proclaiming that while no man may complete it, she is no man, I knew this was going to be good. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I loved it. I have a mixed history with short story anthologies in that I usually want to love them and then end up really, really disappointed. However, Mardoll did not disappoint with this collection of fantastical stories ranging from princesses determined to live as such in a world that denies them their true names to peasants avenging the death of loved ones.
Soldiers and seers had been helpless before the dragon, but they had been men and women. Wren was neither, yet the knowledge did not make xer feel special. Xie simply was xerself, in the same way Halwen was a witch.
Each story comes with a list of warnings where appropriate, and many also come with a phonetic guide to the pronouns used. For example Wren, the collection’s first protagonist, uses xie and xer. Now while this may look confusing at first, it is literally a few letters from being she and her both of which are used all the time so really it’s not that big of a leap. It’s even phonetic so you know how to say it aloud!
I once wrote a good portion of my dissertation defending the use of ‘they/them’ as pronouns in academic texts and I for a First Class Honours Degree. Fight me with your ‘oh but won’t it get confusing’ bullshit. If it got confusing, then I’d have been marked a lot less using it again and again for 13,000 odd words.
“Father never believed me,” she whispered , so softly she wasn’t sure he heard. “I told him when I was younger than Rúni, still just a baby. He thought I’d heard Leifur and Magni talking about the prophecy, but I hadn’t known anything about it. I wouldn’t have cared even if I had! I didn’t want to be a queen or hold a magic sword, I just wanted him to stop calling me something I wasn’t. I wanted him to see me.”
Aside from being wonderful fantasy stories with the traditional hallmarks of the genre – dragons, prophecies, witches and spells and curses – these stories contain some very poignant moments. The quote above is from Daughter of Kings, the collection’s fourth tale, and I thought it was beautiful. Finndís, the daughter of the King, never sets out to be a prophesied ruler – only to be seen in her father’s eyes as the young woman she has always been. She does not want a crown, or the influence of the council, or a socially important marriage – she wants people to call her by her name, and say ‘she’ when they refer to her. So not much at all, in a land where Kingdoms are at stake. These stories are about people who – to quote Mardoll directly – “aren’t special because they are trans; they are special and they are trans”. Yes, these stories open up the floor for discussion of rigid gender binaries and just how necessary they are in settings where flesh-eating dragons literally live next door and demand sacrifices, they show how much complexity, colour and depth can be added to tales of prophecy and magic, but they also exist purely as a series of incredibly enjoyable, well-written stories that just happen to feature trans people. They can also be fantastically funny. One of my favourite lines was definitely the following:
If gossip from the capital could be believed, the last attempt on the overlord’s life had involved an exotic undetectable poison, a goat, and a young culinary genius.
Does that, or does that not, sound like a Skyrim side-quest?
“You are my child, and you are special and loved . Whether you’re a boy, or a girl, or both, or neither, or something else entirely, Eoghan and I will love you as we always have and always will.”
There are some amazing dynamics between characters, my favourite possible being that of Claude and their family in Early to Rise where despite being about a genderfluid child with a curse hanging over their head, Mardoll manages to include the sorts of moments every family experiences – the ‘don’t tell mum’ moment where a sibling helps you do something they shouldn’t, those awkward discussions with parents about who you fancy, and Claude’s all-consuming love for their family who accept them on boy days, girl days, and the days where they’re not sure but they know they’re loved regardless.
“How do you know when a shoe doesn’t fit quite right? It covers your foot and it’s better than nothing at all, because you’re not getting burrs stuck in your heel when you walk, and no shoe is perfect. Maybe if you just wear thicker socks, it’ll feel right. Maybe all shoes are bad and you just need to accept it and stop complaining that your feet hurt.” Kie grinned, shaking kir head. “And then one day you take the shoe off and try on a different one and it’s like you’re seeing sunshine for the first time. And you realize shoes can be comfortable, you were just wearing the wrong one.”
I loved this book, each story was a perfect little tale of love and defiance that both invoked and reworked tales we know well – sleeping beauty and her spindle, waiting for a prince, the sword in the stone and the leader who will pull it free – and created worlds both fantastical and moving. Please read this book.
I want to finish with a few quotes from the Author’s note at the end of the book.
Please only refer to characters by their correct pronouns. For characters whose gender might be considered a ‘spoiler’, it would be better not to reference them at all in reviews rather than concealing their gender with incorrect pronouns .
More resources on transgender characters and how to write about them are available at GLAAD.org and Nonbinary.org for those who are interested. I owe a debt of gratitude to Vee (@ FindMeReading) of GayYA.Org for sharing their poignant thoughts regarding how trans characters are handled in book reviews and how we can better serve our community.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5
A Copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review