River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke This is the second novel in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, was set just before the First Opium War and introduced us to a group of people who were brought together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship. The book ended on a cliffhanger so I was pleased that I had a copy of River of Smoke to hand and wouldn’t have long to wait to find out how the story continued.

River of Smoke was not quite what I’d expected. It does continue the story, but only for two or three of the characters. The rest of them – even the ones we spent so much time with in Sea of Poppies, such as the Indian widow Deeti and the American sailor Zachary Reid – are barely mentioned in this book. The characters who do reappear are Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Neel Rattan Halder, the deposed Raja of Raskhali, and his Chinese friend, Ah Fatt.

In one thread of the novel, we follow Paulette as she joins forces with Fitcher Penrose, an Englishman whom she meets in the neglected botanical garden of Pamplemousses. Together, Penrose and Paulette head for Canton where, with the help of Paulette’s childhood friend, the artist Robin Chinnery, they begin a search for the mythical golden camellia.

In a separate storyline which runs parallel with the first (and quickly begins to dominate the novel), we meet Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, an opium trader from Bombay. Bahram is transporting a large cargo of opium to China and agrees to take Neel with him as his munshi, or secretary. However, when a new commissioner arrives in Canton and the opium trade is banned, Bahram and his fellow merchants face financial ruin.

Like the first novel, River of Smoke provides us with a huge amount of historical and geographical detail. As someone who previously knew almost nothing about the Opium Wars, I now have a much better knowledge of what led to the conflict and the arguments that were used by both sides. Ghosh also brings to life the sights and sounds of Fanqui-town, the Canton settlement which was home to the foreign merchants. Unfortunately one of the devices he uses to do this involves beginning each chapter with a long letter sent by Robin Chinnery to Paulette, and this was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like at all. I had no interest in Robin as a character and it felt that his sole purpose in the novel was to write these letters, giving us pages and pages of exposition that did very little to move the story forward.

I have enjoyed both of the first two books in this trilogy, but I think I liked this one slightly more than the first. I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that River of Smoke wasn’t going to be a direct continuation of Sea of Poppies, but once I had settled into the story, I found it easier to follow because it concentrated on fewer main characters. Paulette and Neel had been two of my favourites from the previous book, anyway, and of the new ones, I found Bahram Modi a particularly well written and complex character. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for him even though what he was doing was clearly morally wrong.

The final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, is due to be published soon and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to catch up with the other characters from Sea of Poppies who didn’t feature in this one!

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14 thoughts on “River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The Shadow Lines or Calcutta Chromosomes, so thanks for the recommendations. I would like to try more of Amitav Ghosh’s work after enjoying these two books so much.

  1. beckylindroos says:

    I really, really enjoyed River of Smoke and also the first one – Sea of Poppies. This is SO my kind of historical fiction – lots of history with characters whose lives are wrapped up in it. Very much looking forward to the Flood of Fire – due out in August.

    • Helen says:

      I love this kind of historical fiction too and have learned a lot from both this book and Sea of Poppies. I can’t wait to read Flood of Fire!

    • Helen says:

      I definitely think you could enjoy this book without having finished the first one – it did feel more like a stand alone than the second in a series.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I love this series. I can’t wait for the third to come out latter this year. I am hoping that some of the characters from the first book who weren’t in the second may reappear.

    • Helen says:

      I liked the fact that this book just concentrated on a few of the main characters, but I do want to find out what happens to Zachary and the others too, so I’m hoping to meet them again in Flood of Fire.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I have Sea of Poppies out from the library and am looking forward to reading it (eventually). I have heard many good things about the series, so I hope I enjoy it as much as you do. And good to know that book 2 is so well-liked, too!

  4. Miss Darcy's Library says:

    I’ve been dithering over whether or not to buy Sea of Poppies for two or three years now (I must say Gosh’s titles and book covers weigh heavily in his favour). I didn’t realize it was a historical novel, though. I think I may buy it after all!

    • beckylindroos says:

      The Ibis Trilogy (the first two anyway) is among the best historical fiction I’ve ever read not because of the plot so much as because of the way Ghosh weaves the mostly verifiable history (I was googling and googling) right smack into the lives of the fascinating characters and does it quite naturally.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you do decide to give Sea of Poppies a try. I really enjoyed it (and this one, River of Smoke) and Becky is right about the clever interweaving of history and fiction.

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