The story is told through the eyes of one of the missionaries, Emily, who watches as her companions, one being her husband, William, struggle along with her in China’s harsh and unpredictable environment. The group also has the obstacle of not starting off strong and united, as a woman, Martha, exhibits extremist behaviour in the group and rails against the intent of the group for adaptation and survival in the strange country. Their struggles deepen as horrible mishaps befall them, and Emily begins to lose her sense of faith. A division begins to take place within the group, as conflicting ideals either real or perceived are brought to the surface, which in turn bring about internal conflicts and suppression of true feelings.
The language is poetic. For instance, “Tsechow was spread below them like a wasp’s nest broken open in the sun.” Holdstock also uses strong, descriptive images to evoke the emotions in the characters and the impact of their new environment. As well, the frequent use of short, fragment sentences echoes the abruptness and urgency of changing scenery, quick action, and sharp, violent thoughts.
The undercurrents carry the tense vibe of changing ideas, while there are increasing overtones of religious strife. Emily is steadily drifting from the group, into herself and questioning her faith and reasons for being there, while Martha is drifting away further into the dangers of the country and her own madness. Emily becomes disillusioned with the idea of God, and feels abandoned. There are also children included in the journey, those of Emily and her husband, who are suffering alongside the adults through the elements and trials of the failing mission.
There is a division of purpose in the group that emerges, displayed in the notions of Christian beliefs, religious extremism, and paganism threatening their united ability to infiltrate the society and assist the Chinese people. Still, there is a silence in the group, as the members don’t wish to communicate these changing dynamics. The mission is falling apart, as the each of the members begin to succumb, in their own way, to the unrelenting landscape and people. New demons arise to test the foreigners, and the group begins to collapse within itself as a result of mind-trickery, obsession, fear and suspicion.
The foreigners face an upward battle, and a constant threat of death, in a land that doesn't want them. Eventually, their stead-fast and narrow views about fortune, faith and god become inverted in the culture they were once trying to save.