No Man of Woman Born is a collection of short stories in high fantasy settings featuring transgender characters. It was written by Ana Mardoll, a genderqueer American author. In xer author’s note, Mardoll states that xie “tried to make this collection accessible to trans readers, with cis audiences welcomed but not centered,” and I think xie has achieved exactly that. Frankly, I’m in love with it.
I’m going to try to toe the line between “no spoilers!” and giving a detailed explanation of why I loved this book so much, so bear with me (and feel free to skip straight to reading the book if you don’t want to know any details about it!)
This book contains seven different tales, all with wildly different settings, cultures, and protagonists. (So much detailed worldbuilding! Times seven! I tip my hat to you!) The wonderful thing about a format like this is how it can demonstrate the wide variety of trans experiences. There’s a character who is neither a man nor a woman. There’s one who is both a man and a woman. There’s trans men and trans women. There’s a variety of neopronouns. There’s some nerdy pontification on the nature of prophecies. There are multiple dragons, of varying moral alignment. And best of all, every trans character is a person, with individual personality traits and motivations.
Having multiple stories serves to immediately counter the side effects of under-representation: namely, the thinking that there is One True Way to be a trans person, or having so few trans characters that every single one becomes a Commentary on Transgender People instead of being understood as one person out of many ways to be a person. I’m so happy that Mardoll chose a story collection instead of a single novel, because of this greater opportunity to show variety and diversity of trans characters.
One of the overarching themes of No Man of Woman Born is prophecies, specifically gendered ones. The main characters’ trans identities are highly relevant to the plot, because they serve as the loophole in the wording of the prophecy. It’s just like how Macduff was not born of woman and Eowyn is no man born of woman- specific wording is extremely important to The Magic, so our hero saves the day. Except, y’know, with trans people. I love this because it plays with one of the most classic tropes- wording has always been important, especially with genies and fey and other magical creatures, who will give you what you asked for, not what you want. It’s classic fantasy, which I adore.
In fact, I think maybe the best thing about this collection is that they’re good high fantasy stories. I’ve always adored the grandeur and imagination of high fantasy; it’s one of my very favorite genres. My personal favorite story was “His Father’s Son.” It was fast-paced and violent and epic, which is how I like my high fantasy to be. There’s found family, revenge, swordfighting, dramatic last stands, heroes on a mission, the defeat of arrogant bad guys- all absolute candy to me.
Gender-feelings-wise, the character I related to most was Claude, a genderfluid character at the center of a Sleeping Beauty retelling, who has girl-days and boy-days and neither-days. My personal gender feelings are still confusing and uncertain, but Claude felt like a kindred spirit, with their creative hobbies and fluctuating gender expressions.
One other thing I want to note: When writing this story, Mardoll chose not to include any deadnames, and xie states that choice in xer author’s note. There are multiple instances where a deadname could have been mentioned, where the plot makes it clear that some form of deadname exists. And Mardoll chose not to include them. These things could have easily been included, and they were just as easily omitted. Mostly I mention this as giant middle finger to anyone who defends problematic media by saying “oh they had to include [upsetting thing] for it to make sense!” Use your imaginations! It can be done! Be as creative as Ana Mardoll! Get good, problematic media creators!
It means so much to me to find media that is so well-aligned with my values, not least because it can be so hard to find. I wrote recently about my love/hate relationship with country music (which incidentally, Ana Mardoll recently described as “that hot ex who blows into town and we have ill-advised sex on top of a pile of diamonds.” Too true). This was in the context of constantly being forced to love stories and songs that actively disregard and exclude me and people like me, because I am so hungry for good stories. I have so many problematic faves because there are so few un-problematic alternatives. When I do find those alternatives, it is so incredibly healing and soothing. No Man of Woman Born is one of those magical treasures, and it was an absolute balm for my queer high fantasy nerd soul.
You can find links to buy any of the versions (e-book, paperback, and audiobook) of No Man of Woman Born on Ana Mardoll’s website, found here!