Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire Flood of Fire is the third and final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and I think it’s probably my favourite of the three books. Set in India and China before and during the First Opium War, the trilogy follows the adventures of a group of people thrown together on board a former slaving ship called the Ibis.

This third novel pulls together threads from the first two and while it may be possible to still enjoy this book without having read the others, I would strongly recommend reading all three in order. While Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke took us through the build up to the conflict, describing the disputes over the trade of opium and the deterioration of relations between Britain and China, Flood of Fire covers the war itself.

The novel opens in 1839 and the first character we meet is Kesri Singh, brother of our old friend, Deeti. Kesri is a havildar (a rank equivalent to sergeant) in the Bengal Native Infantry, part of the East India Company, and through his storyline we are given some insights into army life and the contribution made by Indian regiments to Britain’s military victories in China. Next we are reunited with Zachary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who played a major part in Sea of Poppies but was absent from River of Smoke. In this book, Zachary begins an affair with his new employer, Mrs Burnham, before setting his sights on becoming a successful businessman.

We also rejoin Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who is now living in Canton where he is able to use his skills as an interpreter to assist China’s war effort. Neel’s story is told mainly in the form of a journal and gives us a Chinese perspective of events. Finally, the widowed Shireen Modi is travelling to Hong Kong to visit the grave of her husband, Bahram, and to try to recover some of the money he lost when his cargo of opium was confiscated in River of Smoke. These are the four main characters in Flood of Fire, but other characters from the previous two novels also make appearances, including the French botanist Paulette Lambert; her childhood friend, Jodu; Bahram Modi’s illegitimate son, Ah Fatt (known as Freddie); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the Burnhams’ agent.

Before reading these books I knew nothing at all about the First Opium War, so this trilogy has provided a perfect introduction. Devoting three long novels to a relatively short period of history allows the author to go into a lot of depth, describing first the production of opium in India (Sea of Poppies), the merchants who transported the drug to China (River of Smoke) and finally, in Flood of Fire, the reasons why Britain went to war with China after the trading of opium was banned in Canton. The events of the war itself are given a lot of attention too, from descriptions of battles and strategies to the negotiations that would lead to the British acquisition of Hong Kong.

Although there were times when I felt too much time was being spent on one character and not enough on another, I did find all of their storylines compelling and interesting – with the exception of Zachary’s affair. It was obviously intended to add some comedy to the book, but it didn’t work for me at all and I didn’t think it fit the tone of the rest of the trilogy. Zachary is the character who changes the most over the course of the three novels – and not for the better; his transformation in Flood of Fire could be seen as an example of how greed and ambition can lead to corruption, and is written quite convincingly, but I still found it disappointing as he was such a likeable person at first. As for the other characters, some of their stories end in happiness and others in sadness or tragedy, but I was pleased that they were all given a proper resolution.

The book finishes with a very long list of sources, showing the amount of research which must have gone into the writing of the Ibis Trilogy. We are told that these sources were taken from the archives of Neel Rattan Halder (one of the characters in the story) and that Neel and his descendants have left behind more information which has not yet been used. This gave me hope that, although Flood of Fire is the last of this particular trilogy, it would be possible for Amitav Ghosh to continue the story by moving forward to another period of history. Whether he does or not, I am still happy to have had the opportunity to read these three wonderful novels!

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7 thoughts on “Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

  1. whatmeread says:

    I have my review of this book set to run in December. I really didn’t like what happened to Zachary in this novel, but this is an excellent series. I think your comment about reading it in order is an important one, too.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, there are some series and trilogies that can be read out of order, but I think people really need to read this one from the beginning to be able to follow the storylines and character development. I’ll look forward to reading your review in December!

      • whatmeread says:

        I agree with that. I was thinking of saying something along the same lines in my review, but I forgot. I can always change it! I had a friend who tried to read the second book without reading the first, and he said he didn’t enjoy it. I can imagine that it would be difficult to figure out what was going on.

  2. lizzysiddal says:

    I thought the whole subplot with Zachary and Mrs Burnham was sleazy, and went on for far too long. However, the consequences were tragic …

    I’ll write up my thoughts on the whole trilogy in December. Still debating which is my favourite of the three – probably the first.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, very sleazy! I didn’t like that subplot at all and was disappointed that Zachary’s character changed so much over the course of the novel. I’ll look out for your thoughts in December. 🙂

  3. beckylindroos says:

    I had to do some reviewing by reading reviews of the first couple books before I read the third. I read these pretty much as they came out so it was four years between the last two books! I thought Flood of Fire the weakest of the three, but as a set they’re delicious. The second book was the best imo. In Flood of Fire the relationship between Zachary and Mrs Burnham was kind of sleazy but still, it was so funny – yes, it went on too long. My favorite character in Flood of Fire was Shireen – I loved her.

    • Helen says:

      I’m lucky in that I only started to read the trilogy this year, so didn’t have long to wait for the third one to come out. I think I enjoyed Flood of Fire the most, but I did love all three books. And yes, Shireen was a great character!

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