Thomas Painter is a talented, self-taught wood carver, but he lives in a land where your name is your life. His father was a genius artist, and everyone expects young Thomas to be the same. His parents left him to journey downriver when he was only three, but they never returned. Now, apprenticed to his uncle, William Painter, Thomas longs to be free of the stink of paint. In fact, he stinks as a painter, with none of his father's great talent. Secretly, he has given himself the name Carver, but he's not permitted to follow that path. He is trapped in his father's shadow. Until a magic wand, dropped by a raven who is really a bemagicked girl, falls into his hands, revealing a raw magic talent and sending him down a new and completely unexpected path.
Accompanied by the raven girl, Carver descends the reaches of the river in search of a mage who can train him to use the wand, and change her back to human form. They befriend Fireboy, who helps them escape on his steamboat from a cruel baron. They become outcasts in a city of filthy canals and spewing workhouses, where mages are hunted by the guarda and magic refuses to work. Finally, lured by one of his father's paintings, they arrive at the magic apparatus of the great mage Krimm. There, Carver must overcome the enchantments of the mage and confront the images of his missing parents to choose the best path for all his talents.
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