Cisnormative folklore conventions become violently upended in this collection of gender-fluid fairy tales.
Mardoll (Transcending Flesh, 2018, etc.) creates a fictive world of dragons, witches, wicked royals, swordplay, and sorcery—and plot contrivances that hinge on seemingly sex-specific prophecies that get twisted into pretzels by characters’ gender nonconformity. Unexpected confrontations ensue. In “Tangled Nets,” a dragon that claims a yearly human sacrifice from villagers, boasting that “no man nor woman would ever kill it,” is challenged by a knife-wielding fisherperson who is neither man nor woman and goes by the pronouns “xie” and “xer.” Conversely, in “King’s Favor,” an evil Witch-Queen who fears a prophecy that she will be killed by a male-female duo of mages gets flummoxed when a person claiming to be “both man and woman” (“nee” and “ner”) appears before her throne. That pattern of trans hero(in)es turning the tables on complacent gender assumptions continues throughout the winsome collection. In “His Father’s Son,” an orphan boy named Nocien (“he” and “him”), who others think is a girl, seeks vengeance on Guyon, a chieftain who killed the youth’s father, Cadfen. The orphan is pursuing a prophecy that a son of Cadfen will kill Guyon, which ironically lulls the chieftain into a false sense of security since he doesn’t imagine that Nocien is actually a boy. Likewise, in the Arthurian “Daughter of Kings,” Finndís (“she” and “her”), whom everyone takes for King Njall’s son, sets out to recover a magic sword stuck in a stone that, according to prophecy, can only be pulled out by a female descendant of the monarch.
The plot formula descends into witting self-parody in the title story, which has characters who want to assassinate King Fearghas debate whether shifting away from masculine identification (to pronouns “kie” and “ker” or first-person “they” and “them”) will let them get around a prophecy that “no man of woman born” can kill the tyrant. At times, the author’s trans politics feels obtrusive—“Whether you’re a boy, or a girl, or both, or neither, or something else entirely, Eoghan and I will love you”—and readers may conclude that much trouble would be saved if the Soothsayers Guild warned the public that gender is too subjective and ambiguous a concept for reliable prophesying. Still, there’s much to enjoy in these imaginative stories. They feature lively action (“The dominant left hand…darted out to grab a knife from a man’s belt and stab it into the thick flesh of his thigh”), spooky atmospherics (“Her smile grew wider and the red glow of the strange flickering moss reflected off two rows of surprisingly numerous teeth”), and subtle observations (“A long pause, gentle in intent if not delivery, conveyed all the sighs the Queen never breathed”). Mardoll often infuses a droll comic sensibility into the enchantments, especially in "Early to Rise," a sparkling takeoff on "Sleeping Beauty," in which Prince(ss) Claude ("she," "her," "he," "him," "they," and "them" as her/his/their gender veers between feminine, masculine, and both at once) dispenses with true love’s kiss and instigates pragmatic negotiations with an angry fairy godmother. Readers of all orientations should appreciate the author’s assured storytelling and supple prose.
A sometimes-didactic but often entertaining set of gender-bending yarns.