Book Review: Ana Mardoll's No Man Of Woman Born
In popular culture, ‘no man of woman born’ is a trope where impossible, predicted events come true due to a loophole. One recent example of this trope is in the 2017 film Wonder Woman. No man has been able to cross a landscape literally called No Man’s Land. However, in the film, Wonder Woman becomes the first person to cross No Man’s Land due to the fact that she is a woman. Another of the most well known examples is in J.R.R. Tolkien's book trilogy The Lord of The Rings. The Witch King of Angmar 'can be killed by no man' is killed by a woman named Eowyn. This trope and very example inspired Ana Mardoll's debut fantasy story collection, No Man Of Woman Born.
The collection consists of seven stories which revolve around prophecies, and Mardoll has used the loophole provided by the "no man or woman born" trope to redefine who gets to be heroes. Each story focuses on a trans, non-binary, or gender questioning protagonist who break, subvert, or fulfill prophecies with unique abilities, courage, and cleverness. Although some may think that having trans, non-binary, and gender questioning characters is unrealistic for modern sci-fi and fantasy, these stories expand the groundwork laid through queer retellings of classic myths, folktales, and fairy tales.
Another notable factor is how the book is accessible especially for trans, non-binary, and gender questioning readers. Both the table of contents and the beginning of each story features content warnings for things that might be triggering. By including content warnings, trauma survivors or anyone who might have PTSD can either mentally prepare themselves for the stories or choose to skip them entirely. Since trans and non-binary individuals experience high rates of mental health problems, it is good to see people taking these circumstances into consideration. In addition, certain stories also feature a pronunciation guide for newer pronouns that they might not be familiar with.
Setting the tone for the entire book is the first story, "Tangled Nets", which is about a fisher grieving the loss of xer sister to a dragon. Mardoll’s writing makes xer grief palpable through inner dialogue, and the world building shows how precarious their situation is. Ultimately, grief is channeled into heroism as the fisher makes a decision that gives xer closure and saves the village in which xie resides.
The next story, "King's Favor," features a hedge witch using nur wits and knowledge to survive after catching the attention of a witch-queen who has been purging mages from the country. While there is a bit of an info dump that slows the pace a little too much, the exposition and backstory of the main lead is interesting enough to keep you reading. The story really delivers during its climax and ending by featuring creative, non-flashy magic abilities.
Other remarkable stories include "Early To Rise" and the collection's titular story "No Man of Woman Born." "Early To Rise" is a delightful twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale that mixes elements of the film Maleficent with a gender-fluid, aromantic protagonist named Claude. Gender expression is affirmed in fun ways and the idea of needing romantic love to break a magical curse is examined and subverted.
Meanwhile, "No Man of Woman Born" has the least magic out of all the stories, but still manages to be compelling. Innes, a young fighter reexamines the life and identity he has known as people try to satisfy the conditions of the latest prophecy. Selfhood is a major theme presented as the story discusses facets of gender identity and asks what prophecies are dependent on. It is an honest, poignant tale of needing validation for who you think you might be.
My personal favorite stories include “King’s Favor,” “Early To Rise,” and “The Wish Giver.” “King’s Favor” had an interesting take on magical witches, while “Early To Rise” was an unexpected, fun fairy tale retelling. Finally, “The Wish Giver” featured a whimsical meeting between a dragon and child that I enjoyed.
All in all, No Man of Woman Born is an entertaining collection of magic, adventure, and gender queerness. Through prophecy, Ana Mardoll retells the heroic journey in exciting and emotionally affecting ways for trans and non-binary fantasy fiction lovers. From "Tangled Nets" to "The Wish Giver," these stories are classic fantasy made new again.
Latonya Pennington is a non-binary queer freelance writer and poet. Their poetry has been published at Linden Avenue literary magazine, Superselected magazine, and the anthology Scribes of Nyota. You can find them on Twitter @TonyaWithaPen.