Each missionary hails from a completely different background: dour, ascetic Pierre de B haine is a powerful Jesuit bishop; tormented artist Fran ois Gervaise is fleeing France after committing a murky misdeed; headstrong year-old Henri Monange joins the order to escape crushing poverty.
Scarcely a year into their stay in Annam, the two younger men are sentenced to death by the local mandarin for their parish's failure to pay taxes, but are spared when Gervaise gives up his faith to save Monange and their followers. A changed man, Gervaise turns to Buddhism and pledges his loyalty to a rebel force of peasants, caught in the middle of a civil war between the country's North and South.
Meanwhile, Monange joins de B haine at the court of Prince nh in the South and falls in love with a beautiful servant girl named Xuan, who eventually becomes nh's concubine.
Nguyen maintains the impressive period detail that made his first novel, The Tapestries, so compelling, but his narrative is much sharper this time around, with the story drawing energy from the contrast between the characters' various agendas, particularly the constant clashes between Gervaise and B haine. Pierre de Behaine is the figurehead, the spiritual guide, privy to the whispered instructions of God, constantly in pursuit of his own vision.
But Francois Gervaise and Henri Monange are more complicated and well-defined characters, and far more likeable.
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Francois follows an inner voice, beset by personal doubts; his choices affect his survival, and more importantly, his spiritual condition. A gifted artist, Francois displays the spirit of true religious fervor forged by experience. Henri is only sixteen when their real trials begin.
With an innate sense of right and wrong, Henri is the most accessible and least ascetic of the three men. The youthful Henri is often impetuous, undisciplined and given to anger - but he is honorable, which inspires the trust of others.
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Each man reacts differently to this constantly changing environment, where fate is altered instantaneously by feast, famine or the whims of a warlord. Their adventures are extraordinary and exotic, far removed from the structured European values of their native France as Christianity batters at the doors of the Far East, determined to infiltrate this land and claim souls.
In the late s, change is wrought by such men who cross cultural boundaries, their pale faces blooming among the crowds like strange flowers in a sea of others.
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