Allow me to start with two immediate thoughts about content and delivery. Content: Today’s Mexican narcos, the Colombian cartels, the Afghan/Pakistani smuggling rings utterly pale in comparison to the British and American opium runners demanding access to 19th-century China. You might have studied the distant Opium Wars via textbook facts and figures, but you probably didn’t have the sort of visceral, being-there experience as Amitav Ghosh provides here.
Delivery: Read, do not bother listening to either of the two Ibis Trilogy titles (hope springs eternal for #3). Phil Gigante who voices Sea of Poppies gives the strangest accents to the characters, including an inexcusable ‘ching-chong’ for Baboo Nob Kissin. Thankfully, the man gets to speak fluently as narrated by Sanjiv Jhaveri in River of Smoke. BUT Jhaveri’s recitation of Robert Chinnery, the illegitimate mixed-race son of George Chinnery (the English painter, a historical figure, although Robert is seemingly Ghosh’s creation), is SOOOO riddled WITH (!!!) non-existent OVERpunctuaTION and flamBOYant OVERemphasis in his cadence as to make the young man sound like a grating stereotype on some failing teen drama. So really, get the books only and let your own voice give breath to Ghosh’s brilliant characters, unaided!
River begins “in a far corner of Mauritius,” where a now-elderly Deeti resides over her sprawling clan, telling stories from her adventurous life. Backtrack to 1938, when Sea of Poppies ended with a daring five-man escape from the Ibis. Of the Sea cast, Ah Fatt reunites briefly with his father, Bahram Modi, the shrewd merchant son-in-law of a powerful Bombay Parsi family; Ah Fatt manages to get the former Raja Neel Rattan Halder hired as Modi’s munshi (writing secretary) aboard his ship Anahita headed to Canton. Meanwhile, on Mauritius, Paulette finds both an employer and mentor in botanist Fitcher Penrose who was an admirer of her late father. She joins Penrose on his ship Redruth as he sets course for China to collect rare plant specimens.
Convergence happens in Canton’s foreign quarter, Fanqui-town, a lively cosmopolitan enclave (although no foreign women allowed). River‘s narrative follows Bahram Modi’s journey with a loaded cargo that should be enough to buy his freedom from his greedy in-laws, and the lively experiences of Paulette’s childhood friend Robert Chinnery who is sent to Fanqui-town in Penrose’s employ to track down the mythical “Golden Camellia.” The foreign traders are most anxious about their overstocked opium, awaiting permission to unload. What’s illegal in their own countries demands to be dumped in China in the name of free trade … but the Chinese government has had enough and are finally ready to reclaim their addicted country. Let the war begin … literally.
Ghosh combines history and fiction here with seamless grace as he meticulously weaves actual documents, people, and events with his own unforgettable characters. The result is entertaining and astonishing … and will surely leave you impatient for more. Yes, book 3 is coming … although it can’t here soon enough for some!