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!

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia Between now and December 2016 I am participating in the Women’s Classic Literature Event hosted by the Classics Club. There are many classic female authors whose work I’m looking forward to reading, but I decided to begin with a book by Willa Cather. I read my first (and until now, my only) Cather novel more than five years ago; it was The Professor’s House and, although I did like her writing, I wasn’t very impressed. I suspected, though, that it just wasn’t the right book for me and that I would enjoy a different one more. My Ántonia, probably Cather’s most well-known and well-loved novel, seemed the obvious choice for a second attempt.

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a lawyer, who is looking back on his childhood and his relationship with Ántonia Shimerda. Orphaned at the age of ten, Jim leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. Jim travels to Nebraska on the same train as the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian immigrants who are hoping to build a new life for themselves on the plains and who will become the Burdens’ closest neighbours. Ántonia is only a few years older than Jim and a friendship soon forms between the two of them.

I loved the first part of the book, showing the struggles faced by a family of immigrants trying to adapt to a new country and a new lifestyle (the Shimerdas are completely unprepared for the harshness of their first winter in Nebraska). Written in the beautiful prose I remembered from The Professor’s House, there are some wonderful, vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sod houses and rough dugouts in which the pioneer families live, the tall prairie grasses and the changing seasons.

Later in the novel, Jim’s grandparents decide they are growing too old to work on the land any longer and the family move to Black Hawk, their nearest town. It’s not long before Ántonia also comes to town, to work as a housekeeper, and she and Jim renew their friendship for a while – but due to differences in background, gender and education, their lives eventually take them in very different directions. Although Jim and Ántonia grow apart over the years, both characters continue to cherish their childhood memories and their shared experiences of life on the Nebraska plains.

While Ántonia is the title character, the whole story is seen through Jim’s eyes and there are long sections, particularly in the second half of the book, where Jim is discussing his time at university or his relationship with Lena Lingard (another immigrant girl) and Ántonia is barely mentioned. However, it is when Ántonia is on the page that the story comes alive and I think this is why I enjoyed the book more at the beginning than I did towards the end.

I’m glad I gave Willa Cather a second chance and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future. If anyone else is considering reading Cather for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, I would definitely recommend starting with My Ántonia!

Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

Beau Geste When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.

Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.

It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.

Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.

Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.

This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.

1924-club I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!

Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

Kit by Marina Fiorato

Kit Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, Kit, tells the story of Kit Kavanagh, a young woman from Ireland who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband to war. Those of you who have never heard of Kit Kavanagh (and I hadn’t until I read this book) may be surprised to know that she was a real person and that this novel is loosely based on a true story.

Kit’s adventures begin one evening in a Dublin inn when her husband, Richard Walsh, is pressed into the British army and disappears overnight. Having only been married for a few weeks, Kit is devastated and can’t stop thinking of her beloved father who was killed in battle several years earlier. Determined to save Richard from the same fate, she decides to dress as a man and enlist in the army herself. Soon Kit finds herself on a ship heading for Italy where she will serve with the Scots Grey Dragoons under the command of the handsome Captain Ross.

It’s 1702 and the death of the last Habsburg king of Spain has sparked conflict across Europe. The heir to the throne is the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, meaning that both Spain and France could potentially be ruled by the same monarch. In an attempt to prevent one man from gaining so much power, England and Scotland have formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic in support of a rival claimant, Leopold I. The two opposing armies are battling for control of the north of Italy as Kit arrives in Genova to begin her search for Richard Walsh.

The first half of the novel follows Kit as she fights alongside the men of her regiment, hoping that her luck will hold out and her true identity won’t be revealed before she catches up with her husband. To complicate things further, she finds herself falling in love with Captain Ross – but as he believes her to be a man, she is unsure how he really feels about her. The second half of the novel is where Fiorato moves away from reality and further into the realms of fiction, creating a storyline in which Kit is recruited by the scheming Duke of Ormonde to spy on the French.

Kit is the third book I’ve read by Marina Fiorato (the other two are The Glassblower of Murano and Beatrice and Benedick) and this is my favourite so far. I loved Kit as a character and was completely gripped by her story. This is the first time I’ve ever read about the War of the Spanish Succession, but as Kit also knows nothing about it, we have the opportunity to learn along with her. Battle strategies and political intrigue are clearly explained and we meet important historical figures of the period such as the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy.

I particularly loved the first part of the book – The Sword – which concentrates on Kit’s time in the army, the beginning of her relationship with Captain Ross, her friendships with the other dragoons (whose names Fiorato chose from her local war memorial), and her clashes with the villainous Sergeant Taylor and the sinister army surgeon Atticus Lambe. I was very impressed by the amount of detail Fiorato goes into in showing how thoroughly Kit prepares herself for life as a man, not only by changing the way she dresses, but also by adjusting her speech, her mannerisms and her whole persona. Knowing that the character is based on a woman who really existed just makes Kit’s story even more fascinating!

The second part of the novel – The Fan – in which Kit falls into the hands of the Duke of Ormonde, has a different feel and I didn’t like it as much as the first part, although I did enjoy watching the development of Kit’s friendship with the Italian castrato singer, Lucio Mezzanotte. The various threads of the story came together nicely at the end, and while I didn’t really think the epilogue was necessary it did mean that all the loose ends were tied up.

In Kit I found the combination of history, adventure and romance that I love in historical fiction and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of Marina Fiorato’s novels. The Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret and The Venetian Contract all sound appealing, but I should probably start with Daughter of Siena, which I already have on my shelf.

The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

The Vicomte de Bragelonne This is the third Dumas novel to feature d’Artagnan and his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Originally published in serial form as part of a much longer book, it is now usually split into three volumes of which The Vicomte de Bragelonne is the first and Louise de la Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask are the others. As Dumas is one of my favourite authors I was fully expecting to love this book – and I did, although it was not quite as satisfying as the first two d’Artagnan novels – The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

The first thing to say about The Vicomte de Bragelonne is that it is not really about the Vicomte de Bragelonne! He does appear near the beginning and again near the end, but his role in the story is not really any more significant than any number of other characters. The next thing I should say is that any reader hoping to find the four friends working together again in the spirit of “all for one and one for all” will be disappointed; we do see quite a lot of Athos, but Porthos and Aramis only come into the story very briefly towards the end.

So, what is this book about, then? Well, possibly because this is only one section of a longer work, it’s difficult to give a summary of the plot. The first half of the novel concentrates mainly on d’Artagnan and Athos who are working on two separate schemes both designed to restore Charles II to the throne of England. History tells us that the restoration would be accomplished – though not quite in the way described in this book, which is much more fun than what actually happened!

Later in the book we learn that Aramis and Porthos seem to be helping the Superintendent of Finances, Monsieur Fouquet, to build fortifications on the island of Belle-Île. We don’t find out exactly what they are up to, however, and this part of the story is left shrouded in mystery, presumably to be developed in the next two novels. Finally, there’s the storyline involving the title character, Raoul (the Vicomte), and his love for Louise de la Vallière.

The gaps between these three subplots are filled with lots of chapters detailing the political situation in France in the 1660s (particularly the death of Cardinal Mazarin and the rivalry between Fouquet and Louis XIV’s new Minister of Finance, Colbert) and the romantic intrigues of the French court (revolving around the King’s marriage and also his brother’s marriage to Charles II’s sister, Henrietta). All of this makes The Vicomte de Bragelonne a heavier, slower read than the previous two novels, but I didn’t find it boring at all – I love the way Dumas writes and I love French history, so I didn’t really mind the fact that there was less swashbuckling action and that we don’t see as much of d’Artagnan’s friends.

Of course, where history (or even geography) is concerned it can’t always be assumed that everything in a Dumas novel is completely accurate. I was amazed to find that in Dumas’ world the city of Newcastle had suddenly been transported from the River Tyne to the banks of the River Tweed sixty miles to the north! Dumas also tends to change dates or rearrange the sequence of events whenever the story calls for it as well, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have even noticed most of these alterations if I hadn’t been referring to the notes at the back of the book. I’m pleased to say, by the way, that the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition didn’t spoil any of the story – although I avoided the introduction just in case.

As The Vicomte de Bragelonne doesn’t stand alone as a complete novel and wasn’t originally intended to, there are a lot of things left unresolved at the end of the book, as you would expect. I’m looking forward to continuing the story soon with Louise de la Vallière!

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?