Ten-year-old Paul and his sister Julia are on vacation at the beach one day when they find a shell midden on the shore. When they climb it, they find a crow's nest with a creepy little ragdoll in it. Paul distrusts it immediately, but Julia is entranced, and brings it home, where their parents don't seem to be able to see it. The next morning, Paul hears someone moving around, and follows the sound out to find his sister, possessed by the doll, building a strange blue fire on top of the midden. She freezes him helplessly in place, then jumps into the fire and disappears. Paul rebuilds it and follows Her through, determined to rescue his sister.
So begins a quest to stop the Ragwitch and save his sister (and maybe the world he finds himself in on the side). Throughout, the narrative switches between Paul's journey and Julia Fighting from the Inside despite the Ragwitch's attempts to control her mind.
Despite the fact that it hits pretty much the whole checklist of standard high fantasy plot devices, it still manages to make them all work in original ways and create a world that seems a lot bigger than what we get to see of it.
This book provides examples of:
- The Beastmaster: Though Leasel the hare is not exactly a great fighter, other Friends of Beasts have more badass companions like very large dogs, wedge-tailed eagles, and boars.
- Dying as Yourself: The Ragwitch turns back into Anhwyvar for a second when She dies, smiles, then disintegrates.
- Enemy Within: Inverted. The Ragwitch's original personality is a very nice person who's locked up in a corner of Her memories and does not appreciate what She's doing.
- Fate Worse than Death: Being imprisoned in the Ragwitch's mind. Mirran, after being locked in there for hundreds of years, basically gets warped into a monster before Julia gets him back to normal.
- Fighting from the Inside: Pretty much all of Julia's plotline consists of this in some form or another.
- Gotta Catch 'Em All: Paul has to get the help of all four Elementals: The Master of Air, the Water Lord, the Fire Queen, and the Earth Lady.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: What led to Julia's creation in the first place: Anhwyvar and King Mirran were so determined to end the war with the Gwarulch that she accidentally used magic a little too black and got herself dragged into what is basically Hell for her trouble.
- Omnicidal Maniac: The North Queen and her minions killed every living thing they could find during the time when she ruled the country and sowed fields with salt.
- Painting the Medium: Pronouns used to describe the Ragwitch are always capitalized. Apparently She is so scary that even the narration feels the need to give Her Her due respect.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: Oddly enough, our world is the can; while the North Queen was too powerful for them to destroy, she could be weakened and locked in another universe where she wouldn't be able to cause so much trouble.