Katherine Paterson, twice winner of the Newbery Medal, a powerful writer who often works with historical themes, couches a perennial problem - religion used by hypocrites to further their own ends - in a record of an 1850 rebellion against the Manchu dynasty.
This large theme unfolds through the lives of two teen-agers, attracted to a neo-Christian sect calling itself the ''Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace'' - he, because the Christians buy him out of slavery and feed him; she, because of tutoring by a sincere Christian leader. Both become warriors for the sect, but as the brutalities of war are layered with internecine squabbles, the warriors draw together in their disillusion.
It's a love story that works well on many levels. As a historical novel, it graphically explains the phrase ''children are starving in China''; as a war story, it puts in everything ''Star Wars'' leaves out - the gore behind the glory; as a feminist's tale, it presents females with courage and compassion in a China where women's feet were bound; and, most predominantly, as a metaphor against zealots, it shows the horrors to which religious idolatry can be put.
This novel contains many things parents want to save their children from: brutality, deceit, hypocrisy. But Mrs. Paterson resolves those elements in a stand for morality - a lesson that perhaps all young people should learn.