Pip and his sister El live alone in the unsavoury streets of the city of Clarel, existing on what Pip can acquire by picking pockets. When a silver casket he steals contains a dried-out heart he has no idea that in the wrong hands this strange object will unleash ancient forces so dangerous that the fabric of the world will face destruction. All he knows is that the heart seems to know him and respond to his touch.
Pip and El do not, however, have the monopoly on dreary lives. Princess Georgette, living in royal luxury, is miserable at the thought of her impending arranged marriage to the ghastly King Oswald, from which there seems no escape. The politically motivated union will enable her father – the equally ghastly King Axel – to rid himself of his barren second wife and thus have another chance of siring a son to inherit his kingdom. Yet nothing is as it seems in these or any other parts of the kingdom.
Enter the forces of magic, in the shape of the witches who are wrongly reviled because they are not understood. They work to keep the world safe from Spectres,those creatures who are neither dead nor alive but who exist in a the In Between, needing to marry and have robust children whose spirits they can consume in order to live in their bodies.
Croggon weaves many eponymous threads into her narrative and the supernatural is the most feared and powerful of them all. One of the many admirable things about this book is the interweaving of fantasy and real life to illustrate the close proximity of the two and the subsequent insecurity of the characters. There is compassion too – for the witches who were wrongly tortured, but most of all for Clovis, killed by his father for his own ends. Pip becomes his home and his haven – a metaphysical representation of the care we might give to others in desperate situations.