2018’s No Man of Woman Born (Rewoven Tales) is a single-author collection by Ana Mardoll.
Thanks to the place Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood has in my heart, I am always up for fairy tales re-imagined in a new light. Of course, this is sometimes not fair to new collections; I tend to measure them against a collection I like very much. Mardoll’s collection passes the test.
Author’s Note (No Man of Woman Born) • (2018) • essay by Ana Mardoll
To quote the author:
I wanted to write the stories I’d needed as a trans child hiding with a book under a pink duvet.
Mardoll is riffing on a famous bit of wordplay from Shakespeare and Tolkien, in which the Big Bad feels secure. They have been assured that no man of woman born can possibly hurt them. It hasn’t crossed their mind that there are quite a few people who don’t belong in that set.
Tangled Nets • (2018) • novelette by Ana Mardoll
A small village bought peace with an ancient white dragon the only way it knew: by annually surrendering one token victim to the dragon. The system has been tweaked from time to time (in a way that burdens the town’s poor more than its rich; what a surprise).
Still grieving over their sister’s sacrifice, Wren volunteers to be this year’s victim. The dragon has no reason to be wary: after all, it knows no man or woman will kill it. But sailor Wren knows things the dragon does not.
If you’re in receipt of a vision that seems to imply you’re unkillable, you should take a much closer look at the implied conditions.
(I wonder if Ringwraiths ever died of head colds? Or by being swarmed by carnivorous snails?)
King’s Favor • (2018) • novelette by Ana Mardoll
Caran’s foray into the closed Northnesse was supposed to be covert. It was covert, right up to the moment when one of the witch-queen’s magical trinkets revealed that Caran was a magic user. Arrested and dragged off to meet the witch-queen herself, Caran was surely doomed. After all, what could a herbalist with almost no magic do against the woman who had hunted down and exterminated Northnesse’s great mages?
His Father’s Son • (2018) • novelette by Ana Mardoll
Told he could only be struck down by a son of Cadfen, Guyon massacred Cadfen and as many members of Cadfen’s family as Guyon could find. No sons, nobody for Guyon to fear. Nocien escaped to plot revenge, but since Guyon was certain Nocien was a girl, surely there was nothing to fear from that avenue?
Settings in which prophecies work sometimes feature self-fulfilling prophecies. Lesson: don’t try to escape prophecies with mass murder. That didn’t work for Herod or Arthur and it probably won’t work for you. Instead, find some way to subvert the wording. Guyon is a direct sort of person, so he opted for Plan Murder.
Daughter of Kings • (2018) • novelette by Ana Mardoll
Only a daughter of Queen Ásdís’s lineage can claim the throne, which she must do by pulling Queen Ásdís’s magic sword from a stone. After the civil war the lineage appears to be pruned of suitable candidates. Another must be produced, tout de suite! Or perhaps everyone is overlooking another possibility.
Early to Rise • (2018) • novelette by Ana Mardoll
No fairy can undo another fairy’s curse. The best the good fairies could do for a cursed infant was twist the curse so that the royal daughter would not die; she and her whole kingdom would instead fall into a long, deep sleep. The good fairies were unaware of certain facts re the infant’s sex, facts which made the twist less benign than intended.
“No Man of Woman Born” • (2018) • short story by Ana Mardoll
“No man of woman born can harm Fearghas” — or so the prophecy has it. Fearghas being loathsome and a prime candidate for assassination, many try to find someone who doesn’t fit in that box and who can kill Fearghas. Innes is one candidate among many. If they do not succeed in killing Fearghas, they can at least help the one who eventually does.
Fearghas’ subjects are people after my own heart. “No man of woman born can kill Fearghas” isn’t a declaration that the king cannot die. It’s a how-to manual for selecting would-be assassins.
My take on the matter; perhaps it just means that men cannot kick, punch or strangle the king to death. Death by hand is out. Stabbing him with a sword might work; the sword is not a man and was never born. If that doesn’t work, I’d try stampeding elephants at him or baking the king in an enormous bran muffin. Few evil monarchs can survive twenty or twenty five minutes immersed in batter at 350 degrees.
[Editor’s note: I should think that if one took steps to ensure death, one would have committed a murder and be legally liable. Even if one didn’t do it manually. So it all depends on just how one parses the curse. Perhaps one would need to inspect the curse code …]
“The Wish-Giver” • juvenile • (2018) • short story by Ana Mardoll
A small child braves the dangers inherent in seeking out dragons to earn a wish: the gender of its dreams.
All these stories explore settings in which protagonists cannot be assigned as straightforwardly male or female. From a certain perspective, that might seem a bit repetitive1. On the other hand, how often do people complain of story collections that all feature men?
Each protagonist doesn’t fit neatly into binary gender bins in a different way. So from that perspective this is a diverse collection. The overall effect is a bit ploddingly earnest … but I like earnest better than jaded or cynical.
Most of the stories also feature a common fairy-tale trope: prophecies or curses that don’t work quite the way you would expect from a cursory glance. If some people cannot kill the antagonist, well, who can? Is the spell so poorly worded that it has unexpected effects? I tend to be painfully literal-minded; I know how instructions can confuse2; I am amused by riffs on unclear instructions.
1: As do most fairy tales, these stories assume feudal states with kings and nobles. Is it possible to write high fantasy that doesn’t assume a monarch or functional equivalent? Suggestions in comments.
2: When I was in kindergarten, I was given permission to walk home provided that I did not talk to strangers and did not cross the street by myself. Some three hours after school had let out, I still hadn’t arrived at home. The police found me on the same block on which the school was located. There was no way for me to get off the block without violating one or the other of the conditions. I had been sure that there had to be a way home that satisfied both conditions; my confidence was misplaced.