A sometimes-didactic but often entertaining set of gender-bending yarns.

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NO MAN OF WOMAN BORN

From the Rewoven Tales series

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.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-987412-91-8

Page Count: 174

Publisher: Acacia Moon Publishing, LLC

Review Posted Online: Dec. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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