When the ancient city-state of Valice finds itself running out energy to power its machines, Gravinstad, Valice's king-killer and dictator, knows he must find a solution before the city dies and he loses control. A generation before, Gravinstad, in command of Valice's army, had purged the gods from the lives of humans, freeing people from the gods' high-handed and destructive whims. However, one god escaped, a child/god, and over the years Gravinstad has tracked it down to the coal mines that are Valice's last source of energy. If Valice's technology can siphon off its divine power, then Valice, and Gravinstad's power over it, will endure.
But a myth, passed around by the oppressed of Valice, promises that the child/god's return will bring a reign of peace and abundance, and others, like the downtrodden Feralz and even the widowed queen herself, sensing the child/god's presence and aching to free themselves from Gravinstad's grip, begin their own quest to retrieve the deity and redeem their lives.
The race is on -- but what these pursuers find at their journeys' end is a spirit unlike anything they had ever imagined -- and in their doubt and amazement begins a brave new world.
The decrepit but powerful city-state of Valice is running out if energy, and the only fuel that keeps it alive is coal. Though Valice is ruled by a king, the minister Gravinstad wields the true power, and under his command, the mines, worked by child-slaves snagged from the streets or sold to the government, grind out the daily tons that Valice devours.
Gravinstad knows this situation cannot last much longer, but he thinks he has found the solution. Not long before, within the memory of those still living, Gravinstad warred against the gods and succeeded in purging them from the lives of humans. These gods -- capricious, proud, indifferent -- were not much missed. But one had escaped by burrowing into the earth. Known only as the "child/god," this deity still held the allegiance of many because a myth passed around by the oppressed of Valice promises that the child/god's return will bring a reign of peace and abundance.
Through omens, spies, and intuitions, Gravinstad discovers that the child/god has been found in the mines by a young girl who, for some reason, is able to hide herself and the child/god from his best soldiers. If he can seize the left-over deity and use Valice's technology to siphon off its divine power, he will have on tap the endless energy he needs to keep the city under his control.
But Gravinstand is not the only one with his ears to the ground and his finger in the wind. Even as he dispatches his hired assassins Swiddle and Pym to the mines, others are on the hunt. The Ravens, whose bodies hold the final shreds of the gods' vanquished spirits, try to use their weak powers to inform believers that the child/god is about to return. The Feralz, who can converse in Ravenspeak, hear the message and ready themselves for the rescue, believing that the child/god will help them rebel against their tormentors and free the children from the mines.
The Feralz are a tribe made up of the throw-aways of Gravinstad's Menders (scientists versed in mashing biologies and technologies together to create tortured new Manchines). They occupy Under-Valice and are led by Q, a former general under Gravinstad whom Gravinstad punished for betrayal by sewing his head on to a boy's body and sending his daughter, Alma, to the mines. But when he learns that Alma is the one who has found the child/god, Q is desperate to rescue them both before he dies.
Q also has a son, who instead of being banished to the mines, had been delivered to DEAD, the Dead Epistle Assignment Department, or dead-letter office. Known as Swing, he becomes friends with Gaul, a girl who has known no other life than her life in DEAD. When Swing, crazed by the knowledge that his sister is still alive and in league with the child/god, is taken away by the DEAD's keepers, he manages to pass the information on to Gaul, who seeks out the Feralz to honor what she believes is her friend's final wishes. Gaul becomes the unlikely heroine that Q sends forth to bring back Alma and the child/god.
And behind Gravinstad's back the widowed queen Elfrida and her 10-year-old son Bensole, secret devotees of the child/god, manage to slip out of Gravinstad's grasp and make their way to the mines, determined to regain the power that he had stolen from them.
Finally, all these pursuers (including Swing, who manages to reappear) find what they are looking for -- except that what they find goes completely beyond what even their wildest imaginations could have created: Alma has literally consumed the child/god, and no one knows what brave new world she has in store for them. Now, on to When Darkness Becomes Aware of the Light.