Sea of Poppies, the precursor to River of Smoke in the Ibis trilogy, and had even named it one of my top ten books of 2009. But now, years later, I couldn't really remember why I liked the first book, and I almost felt reluctant in picking up this historical epic. However, I soon began noticing how immersed I was in the story and how quickly the pages flew by--in short, River of Smoke is as utterly engrossing as the previous novel.
This is truly something to commend Ghosh on, for in River of Smoke he
has less sympathetic characters than in Sea of Poppies. Where that novel
features poor lovers on the run and burgeoning young romance, River of Smoke's
main protagonist is Bahram, an Indian opium trader, and its story focuses
primarily on Bahram and the American and British traders pushing against
China's decision to prohibit the sale of opium. Their cause is without merit and is
presented so in the novel, yet the reader is still completely drawn in.
Interestingly, the novel has almost no female characters as women are not
permitted in Canton, the primary city of foreign trade. Away from the
influences of their traditional society (and women), the men live a different
way of life. Male friendships are deep, and the men even dance together at
functions! Although there's some teasing from others, it's normal for some men
take other men as "Friends" and pursue long term relationships.
Furthermore, men of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities mix and
socialize together in a way that never would have been possible in England or
Of course, when push comes to shove and Chinese officials begin cracking
down on the traders, this world also starts crumbling. Homophobic epithets are
thrown at those who sympathize with the Chinese objectives, and Bahram
recognizes that he'd quickly be sacrificed for an American or British man. It's
at this point that Bahram becomes particularly sympathetic. Overall, he is a
good man succeeding in a way very few Indian men could at this point, a time in
which their country was controlled by the British. He has succeeded in being
respected among his fellow merchants, yet that's not enough to ensure him
protection in the end.
I was worried that having forgotten much of Sea of Poppies would be a
detriment, but River of Smoke is more a companion novel than a sequel.
Though some characters reappear from the previous story, this novel is a wholly
separate story, not a continuation, and it would not be necessary to read Sea
of Poppies to read River of Smoke.
Ghosh is a talented storyteller. The entire world of the novel is rich in
detail, and the use of local language and terms adds authenticity. He writes
about a fascinating (and utterly shameful for the American and British) period
in history, but it's his characters that bring the novel to life.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.