The book was first published in 1971 under the title Krabat. The story deals primarily with black magic and the lure of evil. Other themes include friendship, love, and death. It won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis in 1972.
Set in the early 18th century, the story follows the life of Krabat, a 14-year-old Wendish (i.e. Sorbian) beggar boy living in the eastern part of Saxony. For three consecutive nights, he is called through a dream to a watermill near the village Schwarzkollm. Upon heeding the call and arriving at the mill, he begins his apprenticeship as a miller's man. He soon joins the secret brotherhood, composed of journeymen and apprentices, and discovers that the skill he is meant to learn through this apprenticeship is Black Magic. The first magic powers Krabat acquires are rather harmless, such as the ability to turn himself into a raven. Other peculiarities of this watermill include the lack of any outside visitors, including farmers who would have brought grain.