A House By The River by Sid Smith Picador $155 In the mainland, missionaries were often treated with the hospitality reserved for rampaging enemy soldiers, and in Hong Kong they were regarded as little more than lower-class idiots who enraged the locals. That's what we learn as we enter Sid Smith's second novel, part two of a planned trilogy set in China, a country the author famously has never visited in the flesh, only through the combined resources of the well-stocked British Library and a sharp imagination. Smith was to attend this week's Hong Kong International Literary Festival, but cancelled following the unexpected death of his mother. A 'prequel' to his award-winning debut, Something Like A House, tells the story of two emissaries of the Christian faith who set up shop on the banks of a river in Guangdong province and try to engage the local community. What follows is hardly the enlightening religious experience expected. Instead, the missionaries see the brutal madness, infanticide, rape, and murder usually earmarked for Jacobean tragedies. John and Grace Gerrard are fated to take the word of the Lord to the heathens of Guangdong. John's father, a missionary, dies on the family voyage to China, a country he had hoped to convert to his brand of celestial bliss. John's mother detests Hong Kong and China with a passion. She abandons her son and runs off with a sailor, leaving John the outcast to the care of missionaries, and, more significantly, his Cantonese amah Song Lan, whom he adores. If John is the outcast, Grace is the half-caste. The child of a rich English heiress and a Chinese father who abandons his daughter after his wife, who swallows two balls of opium and dies, a victim of the horrendous treatment dished out to women who do not bear sons. Grace is also raised by missionaries and inevitably meets her husband. The difference between the two is that John does not buy into the Christian faith with the same zest exhibited by his Eurasian wife. Raised by Song Lan to speak Cantonese as his first language and steeped in Chinese customs, John struggles with his mission. Grace is an archetypal zealot, determined to bring the entire region into the Christian fold. Or rather, bring them back, since Grace is convinced early Christians sailed as far as the Pearl River Delta and set up the first missionaries around Canton. The plot swirls around the freezing waters of the fast-flowing river that sweeps down from the mountains and through the empty valleys where the communities first sprang up hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago. John is kidnapped by the wife of the village head honcho; Grace is mauled by the head honcho; a village shaman is on a crusade to avenge his father, and the sly secretary to Yue Fat the tax collector is under orders to stop the missionaries undermining imperial authority. It's a bit obvious, perhaps, but the river acts as a cunning metaphor for creation, the journey through life, redemption and separation, themes that resonate back to Smith's first novel. This is a much more traditional novel than Smith's first, which was experimental and far more memorable. That said, this story will appeal to readers who like their historical dramas stripped down and minimised. Epic in breadth if not in length.