I first noticed Kat Leyh’s work in her short Pancakes book from a couple of years ago. It was beautiful, both from an illustrative as well as a narrative perspective. So when I first saw her Bird Witch stories, I happily jumped on board. She worked the serialized format well, but coming from a small press publisher meant that it could be sometimes be difficult to get all of the installments. But what Yeti Press has smartly done now is collect all of Leyh’s Bird Witch stories—only about half of which have seen print before—into one book. Not only can readers catch up on the older works that might be harder to find, but they get new tales as well.
Bird Witch centers on the ten-year-old witch Nina and her friend Tali, a kind of bird/human hybrid called a tengu. Nina lives with her uncles, who protect the forest and are teaching Nina to do so as well. So that Nina and Tali encounter the evil Bird Witch is hardly surprising; it’s exactly the type of character that they’re supposed to be on the lookout for.
While there is the requisite fight scene, and it’s handled well, that’s not really the point of the story. Nor is the later one when the two girls encounter an Eel Dragon. In both cases, the ultimate victory goes to Nina’s uncles who are called in to help, and one might argue that this undermines the girls’ agency.
However, the theme of the stories isn’t one of growing into adulthood or mastering some skill to conquer evil; it’s simply about being a kid. It’s about the friendships you make and the tiny steps of responsibility slowly meted out by your guardians. And Leyh portrays all of this quite admirably.
Further, I have to give her kudos to her as well for designing her cast of characters. The two protagonists are obviously girls, and Tali, though a tengu, has a very Middle Eastern feel to her. And though it’s not made explicit, there’s an implication that Nina’s two uncles are not brothers, but lovers and/or mates. In fact, there’s not a single white, heterosexual male in the book. In light of how dominant that type of protagonist is in fiction, it’s amazingly refreshing and encouraging to see something different. And, more importantly, how the story doesn’t make a big deal out of it. In Bird Witch, all people perfectly normal.
Which, despite the inclusion of dangerous witches and dragons, makes the world of Bird Witch a wonderful-sounding and beautiful place to live indeed!