This is a cool-headed, valuable introduction to a spiritual movement that has achieved a certain amount of sympathy outside China on account of its persecution by the Communist Party. I'd never known much about Falun Gong; I'd only ever met one Chinese practitioner and he struck me as somewhat clueless but harmless enough. And an Australian friend with no China connections once got free tickets to a show in Chinatown and asked me along - the show turned out to be Shen Yun, Falun Gong's travelling spectacular. It was such painfully bad entertainment that we left at interval to go eat dumplings instead.

This book has opened the strange cultish world of Falun Gong's beliefs to me for the first time. I admit that as a fiction writer I am attracted to its leader's concept of flying saucers that grow bigger and smaller according to which dimension they're flying in and the idea that people with gills populate the sea bed; also as a novelist, I much admire the way in which a child practitioner called Shanshan supposedly warded off a murderous giant duck with a beam of violet light that caused it to explode. Why didn't I think of that?

On the other hand, I was less impressed to learn of the movement's inherent racism (it believes in a kind of afterlife apartheid where people of different colour have different heavens); its virulent homophobia (according to the cult's leader,'the irrationality of our times is reflected in the filthy psychological abnormality that is repulsive homosexuality'); its vengeful intolerance of any criticism or scientific scrutiny; its violent antipathy towards the mentally ill (banned from the movement, though it's hard to think how that would work under the circumstances); and its lack of compassion or humanity towards those with physical disabilities - the teachings cite the fact that 'blind and handicapped singers with hoarse voices and… repulsive looks become stars' as sign of contemporary society's moral decay alongside the 'wild smearings' of modern art.

Penny does a great job of describing how the movement arose and the history of its conflict with the Chinese Communist Party. If you're interested in the subject, this academic but approachable study is a must-read.