This novel follows the life of Ci Song (or Song Ci), in thirteenth century China. When we first meet Ci, he is a young man who regrets the fact his father has left the capital city of Lin'an for the village, where he finds himself at the mercy of a bullying elder brother with no respect for learning. Through a series of tragedies Ci becomes a fugitive and finds himself on the run with his sickly little sister, Third. His ambition is to return to the Ming Academy, but he is an outcast with no prospects and is responsible for a seriously ill child. Ci has a gift to 'read' bodies, and an inability to feel pain, which results in his eventually being given a chance to become a scholar again. However, his life has many ups and downs, with all manner of betrayals, difficulties and loss to endure before the end of this novel. During his adventures he travels across the country by barge, works as a gravedigger, meets up with a con man, is resented, betrayed and cheated.
Although this is a mystery, there is much more to the book than just the crimes he is sent to investigate. More than half the book is taken up with Ci's life story before he is ordered to the Imperial Court, to find the murderer of several horribly mutilated bodies. If you are looking for a book with an unusual storyline and setting, which examines the life of this incredible young man who became the first ever forensic science expert, then you will enjoy this novel. It is amazing to think that even though Song Ci died in 1249, some of his innovations are still in use today and he completed the first scientific treatise on forensics in history. This really is an original read and I hope, with Song Ci being a young man at the end of this novel, that he will have more adventures in the future - this is calling out for a sequel.