Author: Alison Evans
Publisher/Year: Echo Publishing/2020
Ever since the witch cursed Babs, she turns invisible sometimes. She has her mum and her dog, but teachers and classmates barely notice her. Then, one day, Iris can see her. And Iris likes what they see. Babs is made of fire.
Iris grew from a seed in the ground. They have friends, but not human ones. Not until they meet Babs. The two of them have a lot in common: they speak to dryads and faeries, and they’re connected to the magic that’s all around them.
There’s a new boy at school, a boy who’s like them and who hasn’t yet found his real name. Soon the three of them are hanging out and trying spellwork together. Magic can be dangerous, though. Witches and fae can be cruel. Something is happening in the other realm, and despite being warned to stay away, the three friends have to figure out how to deal with it on their own terms.
Reviewer: Kate Russell
This queer YA fantasy book is set in the present day and is the story of Iris, Babs and “the boy”. Written in first person, present tense, the viewpoint alternates between Iris and Babs. I have tried to use the correct pronouns for each of the characters in this review.
We first meet the “plant child”, Iris. Born from a seed to their mothers, Clover and Moss, Iris never feels like they fit in. Although very much loved by their parents, their only friends are the faeries in the garden, particularly a faery called Saltkin. So Iris is lonely.
And then, one day on the bus, they meet Babs, the “fire child”. Babs lives with her mother, who practises magic, but is also often tired and ill. Also, Babs has been cursed by a witch, and sometimes she’s invisible.
Iris and Babs form a close friendship as they recognise something in each other that they haven’t found before. The final member of their friendship group is referred to only as “the boy” throughout most of the book, as he is trying to find his true name.
There’s magic but danger too – friendly dryads, unfriendly “cold fae”, and of course, the witch, who has returned to the forest after many years. Babs decides she must find the witch and ask her to lift the curse, even though it could be dangerous, and Iris and the boy, of course, go with her. Meanwhile, Iris finds a book of magic filled with blank pages, and only they (Iris) can unlock its secrets.
The three main characters are all trans or non-binary, and this book, apart from the fantasy elements, is all about friendship and finding your “tribe”. It also draws attention to the difficulties faced by queer people in everyday life. In one particular passage, when Iris and Babs go to Babs’ favourite cafe, Eaglefern, Livia, the owner, misgenders Iris as a “girl”. This results in an awkward exchange:
I look at Iris, eyebrows raised. Iris nods. I shake my head. ‘Livia, Iris isn’t a girl.’
Livia puts down her tea towel. ‘Sorry. Is he your boyfriend?’
I scowl. ‘First of all, why would I want to date a boy? And Iris is non-binary.’
‘Sorry, love, I don’t know what that means.’
‘It means,’ Iris says, voice cracking a little. I grip their hand tighter and they continue, ‘It basically means that I’m not a boy or a girl.’
‘Oh.’ Livia chuckles. ‘I didn’t know that was allowed.’
I found this book to be quite different to any other YA novels I’ve read, fantasy or otherwise (dryads are non-binary, apparently, which I thought was a cool little detail). Alison Evans, who identifies as genderqueer, really understands trans and non-binary kids and how important it is for them to see characters like themselves in fiction.
I have an adult trans son, and this is the first book I’ve read where the main characters are like him. As Alison Evans says in their author note at the front of the book, they want people to know about ‘gender euphoria’ before they learn about ‘gender dysphoria’, which I think is a very worthwhile and noble goal!
All in all this was a magical and unusual read, with a lovely message about friendship.