REVIEW: “King’s Favor” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “King’s Favor”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 22-46 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: border walls, population purges, violence, mention of self-harm.

I have to admit, my feelings towards this story of Caran the hedge-mage who is sent as a spy into the kingdom of Northnesse with a view towards overthrowing their witch-queen are…ambivalent.

I actually started the story once, broke down a few pages in, and had to start it again from the beginning a few days later. The primary issue the first time around was linguistic: I found the neopronouns ‘nee’ and ‘ner’ difficult to read, because I’d never been exposed to them before. Even uncapitalized, they read like proper names rather than pronouns to me, and when they occurred capitalized, this was even more pronounced.

This is more a matter of familiarity than anything, but given that the neopronouns in the previous story, xie and xer, were different, I did wonder what the utility of having multiple neoppronouns was. Do they carry with them some subtle distinction? I don’t know, but while I feel like I should know, I don’t know how to find out. It’s quite a minor point, but it made me feel I was missing out on an aspect of the story and had no way to reach it.

On second attempt, I found it easier to read the pronouns, though occasionally my brain still wanted to supply ‘nee’s’ as the possessive of ‘nee’ rather than ‘ner’. This time, though, I kept being distracted from the story by all the world-building I was being fed. I felt that the story read more like notes for a novel (and what a glorious novel it would be!), for the author’s own consumption, than something that we, external readers, were meant to be reading.

All the same, these “notes for a novel” were more enjoyable and more satisfying to read than many short stories I’ve reviewed for this site, and the ending made me smile. I also found that the story forced me to push back against the limits of my own authorial imagination — something which is unfortunately still all to parochial for my liking sometimes — and make me grapple with why I, as an author, still find it a struggle to move beyond centering my own cisness. I want to read stories like this, even if I find them a struggle, because I learn something from doing so and come away from them just a little bit edified, as both a writer and a person.

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