Book Review: Maiden, Mother, Crone by Gwen Benaway

Title: Maiden, Mother, Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes

Author: Gwen Benaway

Publisher: Bedside Press

Publication Date:  April 27, 2019

Genres: Fantasy

Shelves: Female-fronted, Transgender

Although uneven in terms of quality, with a few stories that strayed a little too far from 'fantastical' for my tastes, the fact that a collection like Maiden, Mother, Crone is a collection that's well worth the read.

What stood out most for me, and what I think distinguishes this from similar collections, is that while these are stories featuring transgender women, they are not necessarily about being transgender. In fact, gender is almost an afterthought in many of the stories, something mentioned in passing. There are no big reveals or shocking twists, just a simple acknowledgement of identity.

Gwen Benaway's Mountain God was a stronger opener to the collection, a vintage sort of sword-and-sorcery tale of two mercenaries who are thrown into the role of heroes. There are some interesting thoughts on obligation and duty here, and the friends-to-lovers aspect is deeply intertwined with Aoyas' anxiety as a Marked (i.e. transgender) woman.

Forest's Edge by Audrey Ves follows that up with a fairy-tale inspired story that explores gender, parenthood, and the love for another woman. It's a melancholy story, with a dreamy aspect to the temptations of the fey. The Vixen, With Death Pursuing by Izzy Wasserstein was a strange sort of story, and one that feels frustratingly unfinished, but it's full of beautiful language and some breathtaking imagery.

Ellen Mellor's Freeing the Bitch was, far and away, my favorite story of the collection. It's a fun, female-fronted tale about a classic, yet nontraditional group of adventurers on a high fantasy quest. Gender is very much a part of this, with hints and suggestions and even some red herrings throughout, and the way they stand up for one another is fantastic. I desperately want to read more of these women - especially Sindy and the Bitch - whether it be more stories or a full-length novel.

The Knighting by Alexa Fae McDaniel and Undoing Vampirism by Lilah Sturges are the two stories in the collection that are almost entirely about gender. Personally, I felt Knighting was the stronger of the two, with the philosophical debate/discussion between accepting the honor of being knighted and suffering under the weight of being called 'Sir' well done. I liked Vampirism, and thought it was quite clever, but it was more scene and less story.

Kylie Ariel Bemis' Dreamborn is probably the darkest, heaviest story in the collection, re-imagining the horrors of colonization and residential schools on a fantasy-inspired alien landscape. It's an exceptional tale, with a uniquely strong woman at the forefront and questions of gender - for her and her daughter - underlying it all. I wondered what it was all building to, and was worried it might devolve into some cliched battle, but the spiritual, emotional way in which Bemis resolves the climax is fantastic.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ 1/2

My sincere thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.