At his grandmother’s funeral, 10-year-old Thomas is lured into a hidden sector of her garden, where he learns of the mysterious guild of secret herbalists of which she was a member. Thomas inherits magical access to a network of occult gardens, separated by theme and stewardship, but somehow all part of a fragmented Eden. He becomes apprentice to a benign apothecary who is using his horticultural wisdom for humanitarian ends, but other guild members are more ambiguous, and appear to be embroiled in a murderous struggle to control the hidden links between the gardens. When Thomas learns from Maud, a girl apprenticed to the guardian of the Poison Garden, that as inheritors both she and he are ‘witches in training’, it becomes clear that they too are likely to become victims of the struggle.
Set in Victorian England, this book is an intriguing gothic fantasy, replete with descriptive detail, exotic characters and macabre conspiracies. At the same time, the two child characters at its centre are sympathetic and convincing. Its complex plot demands reading stamina, and the storyline sometimes becomes overburdened with imagery, but it is also a rich and generous read, combining solid, traditional themes (induction into a secret society, parallel worlds, prowling assassins) with a strikingly original central conceit.