Tobin lives in two worlds. As the son of an important mayor, he must be loyal to the dominant Forenzian Empire, but he cares more about the ancient and suppressed world of Shadonia. When his grandmother dies, she leaves him a wooden flute with powers Tobin barely understands. As Tobin watches a street-theater troupe one day, he realizes the puppeteers are criticizing foreign rule under the cover of light amusement. When he overhears plans to arrest them, he warns the puppeteers to escape across the nearby river. But soldiers pursue the players, and Tobin remembers his grandmother's words: in times of trouble, he must play the pipe. When he does, it raises the spirit of the river in a terrifying wall of water, enabling the puppeteers to escape, but at great cost to the Forenzian army. Tobin has an unbelievable power to help his country break free of colonial rule — but he must learn how to use it. Horrified at the deaths his first attempt has caused, he flees with the puppeteers, who are at the center of a secret movement to free Shadonia. Tobin wants to help his country to be free, but how can it be done peacefully and without bloodshed?