On a quest to uncover the truth about her missing father, a relentless young girl wanders deep into the forest at the whim of a cryptic poem and discovers a world inside the mind of the Dreaming Tree.
A rash of kidnappings is moving through Nightdrift County. The media has dubbed them "The Milk Carton Kids." This has given Mallory just the sort of opportunity she needs to prove herself worthy of her father's adventurous legacy--a legacy passed down by her grandfather, Odran. But at the end of this legend, Mal's dad goes missing, and Odran won't allow the same to happen to her. When Mallory defies Odran’s command to stay inside until the kidnapper is found, she follows the trail of a mysterious girl in a coyote mask and embarks on a journey to save the Milk Carton Kids.
Odran is Mallory's only family and friend. He has homeschooled her the whole ten years of her life, and she's known nothing else. Until now, Mallory's days have been filled with playful excursions into Brookwood Forest with a framed photograph of her father, Phelim, but all this time Odran has been carefully curating the stories he tells of his son's exploits, and with Mallory's growing suspicions, something's got to give--and soon.
When Odran starts to worry about Mallory's obsession over
her father's portrait, his friend and former colleague, Olivia
Tsukino, suggests enrolling Mallory in Cloud Academy to
help socialize her. Mallory has begun treating the portrait as
her imaginary friend, as though her estranged father were there with her, and so Odran agrees that it may be time to introduce
Mallory to the world beyond the stories he's told her. Mallory
wants none of it, though, and her introduction to Cloud
Academy isn't exactly smooth. There, she meets Olivia's
daughter, Saki, and the shy and milquetoast Isaac, heir
to the county's highest aristocracy: the Aldo Estate.
Saki is well-read, academically inclined, and a martial arts prodigy thanks to her father, Hirohito. She's deaf, though she wears cochlear implants--at her discretion. It's not uncommon for her to turn them off and shut out the world that has ostracized her. Being a deaf Afro-Japanese otaku has made her both a pariah and a novelty at Cloud Academy, where the harsh hierarchy of private school has made her a misanthrope, so she prefers to be left alone to read her manga and philosophy books.
Isaac is as white-bread as it gets. He's socially awkward and has
no clear skills, hobbies, or talents. Other than being wealthy,
there's nothing special about him--or so he worries. He's the
richest kid in town, but he's not exactly excited about the
privilege and attention it affords him. It isn't the money for
Isaac, it's the excess. It's the environment that builds up around
such a reputation. It's his father, Mark, a negligent billionaire
playboy who spends all of his time nurturing his public image
and attending opulent parties. His grandparents may be
legendary philanthropists, but his father was never so virtuous,
and so Isaac has developed a deep resentment toward the whole
lifestyle--and toward his father. But he's taken a real shine to
Mallory, and while he has no real skills or talents, he's got the
weary, wary heart of the team covered in spades. When a little crush begins to develop, Isaac is completely in the dark on how to woo Mallory, but thankfully he'll have a little help from a mysterious friend...
Ava Baker? Ava Baker! Ava is an apparitional wild-child and the proverbial Cheshire Cat of Brookwood Forest. She seems to know a whole lot about Mallory, which is certainly suspicious, but for Isaac it's no matter--she's come to help him get Mal's attention. Ava also knows a lot about the Milk Carton Kids, and when she whisks Isaac away from his life of neglect and into Brookwood Forest, that's exactly who she delivers him to. Ava has run into some trouble with their new leader, Animus--a wholly different enigma from even the wild Ava. Animus dresses in a tattered, hollowed-out teddy bear plush--the only way Animus has ever been seen--with a face obscured in the shadow of the costume’s mouth. More on this later; let's get back to Mallory.
When Isaac goes missing, the town adds him to the list of Milk Carton Kids. Odran had forbidden Mal from any more adventures outside until the case has been solved, but Isaac's disappearance sparks in her a fierce commitment to find the Milk Carton Kids and bring him--and all of them--home. She defies Odran's orders and attempts to recruit the aid of Saki, since she's a good bit of both brain and brawn, but the two are on the outs at the start. Saki meets Mallory at the abandoned RV in Brookwood--the soon-to-be clubhouse of our trio of heroes--and the two begin their journey to save Isaac and the lost kids.
A mysterious girl in a coyote mask calling herself "Exodus" guides
Mal and Saki, coming and going mysteriously and leaving only
strange, cryptic, often playful clues for the girls to follow, leading
them to the Willow Village where they find Animus. When
Mallory confronts Animus for the first time, it’s discovered that
the vengeful bear child is on the hunt for an antique hand mirror.
In the ensuing conflict, Animus introduces Mallory to the
Tangle–a roil of living roots in the base of a tree in the Milk
Carton Kids’ camp among the willows. Mal is tossed into the
Tangle and is given her first taste of what Ava calls the “Dark
Garden,” where this hand mirror supposedly holds a great deal of
power. This place turns out to be the key to Mallory finding her
father, and upon returning to the real world, she and Saki hit a
crossroads. When Mal discovers a path that might lead to him, she must decide on whether to follow the Coyote Girl’s clues to save the Milk Carton Kids or the stories of her father to find him. Should she secure the future of her flesh-and-blood friends or track down the ghost of a father she never truly knew? Her new friendship with Saki and Isaac–maybe even their lives–hangs in the balance.
Mal’s adventure will have her navigating the feverishly complex world of the Dark Garden as Animus unfolds a plot to use the hand mirror’s power within the Dark Garden against the cruel and abusive adults, who are "not fit to rule the lives of their children."
Their journey leads them all across the county, from an antique clock shop and its eccentric purveyor, to the blustery tip of Satellite City’s Moonreach Tower, to the busted ruins of the traveling Detestable Festival where the Dark Garden’s roots have nested, across the great Orinoco Lake, up to the peak of Mount Skyladder to meet the hermetic neurologist-turned-adventurer Ira Lloyd, and deep into Brookwood Forest to find the Dreaming Tree itself and confront the truth within. Along this journey, we are treated to the beautiful autumnal landscapes of Nightdrift County, from Mal’s hometown of Moonblush Village, through the city and desert and mountains, as Mallory and Saki meet a host of eclectic people in their trek across the familiar world of reality and the arboraceous realm of the Dreaming Tree’s Dark Garden.
Along the way, Mallory is offered unrestricted access to the opinions of those who knew or knew of her father, including her estranged grandmother, who is as unforgiving as she is viciously resentful about the past. The story isn’t good, and where once Mallory’s goal was to be worthy of her father’s legacy, she now sets before herself a warpath to prove true the stories passed down to her by Odran. She becomes ravenous and narrow in her goal, setting her once again on the outs with her new friends, Isaac and Saki. Mallory confronts Animus, but the journey is far from over. As Mallory has found herself dragged back into the Dark Garden time and time again over the course of her journey, she has discovered an arboreal doppelganger of her father roaming the Dark Garden’s distant landscape, and now she’ll do anything to get back to him.
In a secret room in her house, Mal discovers a cryptic poem written by her mother to her father…
A whole new series of clues sets Mallory on the second great leg of her journey–to find the Dreaming Tree. Using the poem as her guide, Mallory is first united with the secretive gravedigger, Cyrus Jones, who knew Mal’s parents and something of the Dreaming Tree. But he’s keeping his own secrets about his fundamental involvement in what happened ten years ago with Mal's parents that led to a conspiracy to keep things hidden, and she is again on her own. Her warpath continues as she rages through Brookwood Forest to find the tree and meet her father within it. She’ll save him from the Dreaming Tree, where he had gone missing, and when she does he can return and prove to everyone that the events of ten years ago were nothing but a misunderstanding at best–a legacy of lies at worst.
Mallory’s approach is obscured by obstacle after obstacle as she slips between the parallel worlds. As Mallory navigates the forest she is whipped in and out of the Dark Garden, finding its landscape all too familiar--an incomplete mirror of the real world. But it’s more than that. The Dark Garden is a series of landscapes, with challenging thresholds forming the path to its inner sanctum. Past the Phenomenal Reach, inside the Hypnagogue, through test after test, Mallory uncovers the true nature of the Dreaming Tree and how it became the central figure of the mysteries of her family’s past.
Mallory and her friends must navigate the Dark Garden and overcome its labyrinthine structure to gain access to the inner sanctum, and so to the truth that Mallory has been seeking. Her journey has been long and wrought with suffering and confusion, but it has all come down to this.
What will Mallory find at the heart of the Dark Garden? Will she find her father? If so, what is the truth that he will reveal? Is it what Mallory has fought for? What of Animus? Of the dangers of the tree’s spreading roots? Who is Ava Baker, and what is her connection to the Dreaming Tree? What happened ten years ago that set all of this in motion? Mallory's ravaging journey to unravel the truth will answer all these questions, but she'll need help to prepare her for the gravity of what lies ahead.