No Man of Woman Born (2018) by Ana Mardoll
Most everyone from the 90s is going to be used to stories concerning individuals who were there to meet a prophecy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven years, going from 1997 into the early 2000s, and telling the story of the life of a young cis woman called to fight vampires. The prophecy itself stated at the beginning of every episode, ‘One girl in all the world. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons and the forces of darkness.”
No Man of Woman Born is more than a mere ‘step forward’ towards diversity in gender. What makes this series different to a lot of others is that they were all so obviously written with a trans audience in mind, rather than a cis one. That made my heart sing.
Ana Mardoll is a popular non-binary activist whose popularity and following is not insubstantial. This is the fourth long-form book they have released since 2012. Ana’s work typically involves retellings, characters with various marginalisations and/or disabilities, and subversions of established tropes.
It is, frankly, uncommon for every story in an anthology to be such a striking success, and yet that’s what we see here in No Man of Woman Born. The title could be seen to hark back to familiar mythology and the rallying cry made by Eowyn in Return of the King, the final book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, “I am no man!”
Perhaps more likely, the title of this anthology is a reference to a similar prophecy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that ‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’ once he is king. Of course, the individual who does kill Macbeth in the end was in fact a man born through caesarean section.
In both of these prophecies, we see the trick on gender played. The villain does not believe that they can be killed, because there is no way a man, or a man born of a woman will succeed in killing them.
Ana Mardoll breaks this popular narrative with seven fantasy stories that engages with these same gendered prophesies and sees them fulfilled by only explicitly trans and non-binary characters.
Although every single story in this collection was a standout success, I have narrowed it to three individual favourites to rave about.
His Father’s Son involves a young man called Nocien who witnessed a massacre of his family after a powerful man tried to unmake a prophesy saying that a son from this particular family would be his undoing. Nocien, of course, being assigned female at birth, was spared this particular massacre.
In this story, it wasn’t just Nocien I loved, but the relationship he had with his adoptive father. What caught my heart in this story was the open ways in which that adoptive father spoke about Nocien becoming a son to him in marriage. That particular sentiment on the page, stated simply and with nothing more made of it, stayed in my head long after I’d finished reading this story.
Early To Rise is probably the short story in this collection that I’ve seen the most about from other people who have also read this, and it’s impossible not to understand why. The character of Claude is ultimately an incredibly relatable character in a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.
True to the fairy tale, this character is cursed to sleep until she is kissed by her true love. Unfortunately, the curse doesn’t take it into account that Claude is not always a girl; Claude is instead multigender, so while the prophecy was sure to cover any kisses that took place while this character was a girl, it did nothing at all for the kiss that occurred when Claude was a boy. This subject was not shied from at all in this story and so I just loved the way Claude talked about their gender all the way throughout this story.
The Wish-Giver is the last story of this collection and is honestly the most perfect note on which to leave a collection like this. I believe this main character is the youngest in the anthology, and it is a personal love of mine to see dragons bonding with children.
This short was a definite rainy day story of a child who asks a dragon to fix the problem of the rest of the village not seeing her as a girl, and the dragon calmly stepping in to advocate for her where the other humans hadn’t (or hadn’t yet). It all the best parts of every other story in this collection condensed into a perfect little snippet I could read over and over again and never get sick of.
Seriously, this is an anthology that the world needs, and I’m so so happy it actually exists.
About the reviewer
Nicole Field (he/she/they) writes across the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. They live in Melbourne with one of their partners, two cats, a whole lot of books and a bottomless cup of tea. They can be found on WordPress: nicolefieldwrites.wordpress.com and Twitter: @faerywhimsy.