3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System
“The flowers of Canton are immortal and will bloom forever” ~Amitav Ghosh
And so i hope they shall, as long as they are not Opium poppies of course. The second installment in the Ibis Trilogy, had a lot to live up to. Understandably so, as Sea of Poppies had set the bar impossibly high. But to me at least, it delivered almost everything that was expected of it. The Opium Wars both 1 and 2, have had a very profound effect on the world, so much so that its ripples could still be felt even now, not only for China but also for India and for most of south east Asia. They can be felt in the Chinese anti west stance, or in India’s struggle to boost up its economy. But this event so critical to history is often neglected, as to the questions of, why it happened? could it have possibly been avoided? Did diplomacy play no part? this story provides ample answers. Opium harmed both the producer and the consumer, only the seller, as it seems profited from its trade.
And its traders are the people that we follow in this story. In Sea of Poppies, we traveled across Bihar to Bengal, in India, the regions abused by the Honorable (Ahm! Ahm!) East India Company for Opium production (against the wishes of the farmers, against any basic human decency), until finally the Ibis traveled down the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean. Investors and producers of Opium were, primarily, the people we dealt with. In, River of Smoke we travel eastward still, though not on the Ibis, to the Nicobar islands, to Malacca, Singapore, Macau and finally Canton. And who better to travel these waters and ports with, than the traders and traffickers who made this route famous in the first place. And so we reacquaint ourselves with “Paulette” our french orphan on her journey from ‘Mauritius’ to ‘Hong Kong’ in search of a fabled flower, With “Neel” our doomed raja and his life as a freeman. In addition , to a host of new characters, like “Behram Modee” father of our opium addict “Ah fatt” , “Robin Chinnery” an old artist acquaintance of ‘Paulette’. And see the world of Canton from their eyes, one a Parsi opium trader of renown from Bombay and the other a ‘bastard’ painter from Calcutta. Some of the old characters from the first book are passingly mentioned, or make brief appearances without ever taking the center stage. Their stories I suspect have been saved for book 3 which I think would focus on soldiers and the actual armed Opium conflict. This book however gives you the build up to it. To the events in ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 factories.
This book too like the previous one, is, exceedingly well researched and written. Without taking too much liberty with history, a lot of historically accurate events and people play a central part in the story. The use of these authentic characters gives the story a life of its own. But unlike the previous one, this tale was a slow burner, you feel no rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. On the contrary, you live through the journey, basking in the author’s very detailed descriptions of the landscape of our various destinations, a glimpse into their societies, even the fl-aura and fauna these places had. More than once, I went online to read about a particular flower or shrub (like the Golden Camellia), or researched about a historical figure mentioned in the book (Lin Zexu obviously, but many others as well like George Chinnery, Charles Elliot etc etc). The point is, the book used a LOT of information which seems quite obvious, it being a Historical fiction and whatnot, but it used it in such a way as to make you curious about them. The bulk of the tale takes place in Canton, the single entry point available to foreigners for trading with China. The city fascinated me, more so ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 Factories, these places, the focal point of the story, were amazingly detailed.
The plot as I mentioned, was not as exciting as the first book but the charm of the book lies in its rediscovery of forgotten worlds and lives. And the best part, the book doesn’t leave you hanging, you could gobble it up and rest with contentment before you feel hungry again. I was impressed by Mr. Ghosh’s style of making the abrupt ending of the first book seem a proper ending during the first few chapters of the second one. His style of jumping between timelines before engrossing in the story is intriguing. The book deserves all the praise and nominations it has been awarded. I recommend this series to any and all history buffs, these were exciting times, these are intriguing stories and to experience them with the pleasure of fiction makes it infinitely more fun.