REVIEW: “The Wish-Giver” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “The Wish-Giver”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 150-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A young child braves a fiercesome, wish-granting dragon to ask for their heart’s desire — and the one wish the dragon cannot grant because it has already been granted. All the child needed was for other people to see what had always been true.

Every trans child needs a dragon at their back to protect and affirm them. While the stories in this collection are not written for cis people, this is one that spoke strongly to me and I hope will to other cis people as well. Not every child gets a literal dragon, but maybe we can be metaphorical dragons and step up and speak the truth when the truth is needed.

This short story is the perfect endcap to the anthology, encapsulating in it everything that is good and affirming in all the other stories (I think it’s not surprise that this is the only story in the anthology that doesn’t have a content note.)

REVIEW: “No Man of Woman Born” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “No Man of Woman Born”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 133-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Governmental oppression, mention of emergency C-section and rape.

When Mardoll said in the introduction that the characters inside “break, subvert, and fulfil the same gendered prophecies” that cis characters get in other stories, we were meant to take this quite literally, as is clear in the number of overt prophecies and oracles that occur in the stories. “No Man of Woman Born” opens with a prophecy, that no man of woman born can harm Fearghas. The prophecy was “unambiguous” and had “independent verification” (p. 139). So of course, nothing could possibly go wrong…But of course not. What is human nature but to exploit constraints, to try to find the loopholes? Schools for training women, children, or animals to fight sprang up all over, all headed by someone seeking to harm the king.

This story is centered around the prophecy, and the way it has shaped the lives of the people it does or could apply to. But even as the prophecy dictated the actions of so many, one thing I loved was the recognition that one did not need to have a prophecy to be heroic: “I’m choosing to believe I have the capacity to become the hero until proven otherwise,” Sìne tells Innes (p. 138) when a new prophecy is published that would seem to exclude her.

There are many aspects of this story that I suspect would speak directly to many people whose life experiences are very different from my own. Not having had those experiences, this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others in the anthology, but that doesn’t really matter, because I’m not the intended audience. For the intended audience — people who are coming to terms with their own gender, or newly coming to terms with the gender of a close friend or loved one — there is a lot in this story that provides models for how to react and to behave.

It’s also where we get our third set of neopronouns in the collection: “kie”/”kir”. Strangely, I didn’t find them as difficult as “nee”/”ner”, which makes me wonder about the linguistic psychology of these new words, and why some of them work so easily as pronouns while others are more cognitively difficult. (Someone do a study on this! And then do a follow-up study on how the cognitive load is lessened after repeated exposure, so that we can do things like have cis people read these stories and thereby up the amount of passive absorption of a variety of pronouns!)

REVIEW: “Early to Rise” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Early to Rise”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 104-132 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Magical curses, non-consensual kissing, mention of self-harm.

Retold fairy tales are tricky to pull off — so when one is done as masterfully as this retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” is, it is a triumph. The best retold fairy tales are ones where the story is not only told again but it’s transformed in a way that makes it entirely new.

There is so much to love about this story — Claude growing up not isolated in a forest cottage, deprived of parents, but kept close within the comfort and love of family, both parents and siblings. The issue of the pressure of finding one’s True Love being addressed head on: When one’s future depends on one finding it, finding it seems inescapably hard. And my personal favorite part, how magic is finally satisfied not through emotion but through logic, and still there is a happy ending.

If you like retold fairy tales, this version of Sleeping Beauty is totally for you.

REVIEW: “Daughter of Kings” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Daughter of Kings”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 74-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Misgendering, parental bigotry, mention of parental death.

Long ago when dragons roamed the lands, Ásdís and her golden sword united the clans and brought peace to the land and became queen. But peace did not last long, as her three sons fell to quarreling and war, and when Ásdís died she sheathed the golden sword in a stone and a wand-witch prophesied that one day a daughter of Ásdís’s line would draw the sword and bring peace again to the land.

Oh, how I loved this story too. It has elements of a fairy tale — dragons, witches, enchanted swords, prophesies — but the characters that inhabit the story are not the flat charicatures of fairy tales, they are real and living and breathing, giving the story more the quality of myth than of fairy tale.

There are far too few stories with truly happy endings, but the story of Finndís, king’s daughter and queen’s granddaughter, and how she came into the birthright that had been prophesied two generations earlier made me cry with gladness.

REVIEW: “His Father’s Son” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “His Father’s Son”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 47-73 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence and sexualized violence, bloodshed, death of family and children.

Oh, this story I loved! It is fiercely, surgingly, triumphantly joyful, and though it is predicated on violence, bloodshed, and death, it is permeated with love — love and acceptance that shines out of the characters and gets you right in the gut.

More stories like this, please, kthanx.

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.

REVIEW: “Tangled Nets” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “Tangled Nets”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 1-21 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Violence, bloodshed, community ableism, sacrificial victims, self-sacrifice

The life of a fisher is a life of routine and ritual — mending the nets, catching the fish, sorting the fish: “the routine was comforting in its familiarity” (p. 2). But the routine of Wren the fisher is broken when xer sister Dwynwen dies and xie must continue to care for their mother Eirlys, never strong and frailer now after the death of her daughter. It was no accidental death or sickness that took Dwynwen, and Wren’s quest is to prevent anyone else from ever dying that way again. But the witch had prophesied that “no man or woman” could ever defeat the dragon…

Mardoll gives us history and detail without overburderning us with information, and every step along the way we are rooting for Wren’s success. Sometimes the most satisfying of stories are ones that set up expectations — or play directly into expectations grounded in a shared literary culture (in this case, western fairy tales) — precisely so that they are met. There is nothing unexpected, there is no surprising twist, everything in this story works the way it should and it is so satisfying.

REVIEW: No Man of Woman Born by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

This is a book of stories written for the “trans child hiding with a book under a pink duvet” (p. x), of stories that center the trans, nonbinary, those whose genders “break, subvert, and fulfill” prophecies (p. xi). It is the stories of heros and heroines who “aren’t special because they are trans, they are special and they are trans” (p. xi).

I’d been hearing the hype about this book on twitter for a few months, but somehow it wasn’t until about a week before it came out that someone actually mentioned that it was a book of short stories, at which my “want-to-read” radar started dinging even louder. Hey!, I thought, I could review it for SFFReviews, and therefore justifying buying it! (I have a very complex relationship with purchasing new fiction, and it involves intricate justifications to stave off irrational guilt.) But one thing that worried me was that I wasn’t at all sure that my cis-woman’s opinion about these stories was really one that needed to be all that loud in the conversation — or even if it should be present at all.

But Ana is a truly excellent human being, and when I expressed my uncertainty to xer on twitter, xie responded immensely generously to my worries, and encouraged me to not only buy xer book (as well xie should!) but also review it. I’m so glad, because it is a real treat, and while I am manifestly not the target audience for these stories, it is my hope that I can boost the signal not only for those who are, but for others like me, who simply want to read beautiful stories well written. These stories may not have been written for me, but I have been benefited, entertained, and enthralled by reading them.

As is our practice on this site, I’ll review the stories individually and link them back to this post when they’re published. Each story comes with their own content warning, which I reproduce here so that people are informed before clicking through to the review.

The stories are all long and lush, fully developed and described. I have only two complaints about the book: First, it isn’t long enough — only seven stories! I want more! — Second, it doesn’t have any pictures. I’d love to read these stories to my 6 year old daughter, but she still doesn’t have enough patience for long stories unless there are pictures. Both of these complaints are solvable: Ana Mardoll can write more stories, and I can sit down one day with my paints and paint my own illustrations for my daughter. Maybe I’ll read her the stories in pieces and we can paint pictures of them together.