Reviewed by Grandma Bev for TeensReadToo.com
When sixteen-year-old Bailou's mother died he was devastated, but when his father takes a new wife who wears his mother's jewelry, it's just too much.
Bailou is the second son, and in twelfth-century China, second sons are not very important in the household. And then one night, his step-mother is murdered, and the jewelry stolen. Everyone is sure that Bailou is the murderer and thief. To his horror, Bailou is convicted in court of killing his step-mother and sentenced to be beheaded. On the day he is to be executed, his father purchases another man to be executed in his place, giving Bailou the Golden Rat status.
Wulffson's premise is based on the ancient Chinese custom of Ka-di, where substitutes could be purchased and executed. Bailou watches the man die in his place, and is then turned out in the street to survive however he is able, since his father has also disowned him.
Bailou knows that he is innocent of the murder, and is determined to find the real killer, but surviving in the slums of medieval China is a struggle. He makes an unexpected friendship, and the two boys work on the ship docks, and scrounge whatever they can to survive.
Bailou is a sympathetic and likable character who is haunted by the man that died in his place, and searches for the truth about this man. But when he finds out about him, nothing is quite as it had seemed in this exciting, action-packed story.
Don Wulffson is a master at characterization and his powerful multi-level plot and vivid descriptions take you right to twelfth-century China. This story is a real winner for reluctant teen readers; storytelling at its very best with real emotion, fast-paced action, and a satisfying ending.