River of Smoke – Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s follow up to Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke is dense with historical fact and cultural insights told by fascinating (and not always fictitious) characters.

This novel traces the 19th century trade route from India to Canton, focussing on events leading up to the outbreak of the First Opium War, but with sub plots covering the more innocent trade in mutually exotic plants and the meeting of European and Chinese classical painting styles.

River of Smoke features character old and new. From the Sea of Poppies we find ourselves back in the company of Neel, a Bengali Zamindarfallen on hard times, and his fellow convict half Indian-half Chinese, Ah Fatt, Paulette, the daughter of the former Assistant curator of Botanical Gardens of Calcutta, and would-be artist Robin Chinnery. (If I had one gripe, with 18 months having passed since I’d finished Sea of Poppies I really wished I could remember more of their stories so far.)

We meet some great new characters (or, if they were in the Sea of Poppies, ones I’d forgotten!) – Parsi opium trader Bahram Modi (aka the ‘Seth’), who tells most of the tale of the opium trade and, it transpires, is Ah Fatt’s father, and trader-botanist Fitcher Penrose who meets Paulette in the abandoned gardens of Pamplemousses on Mauritius.

I’m really looking forward to the final instalment of the Ibis Trilogy… but suspect I need to start from the beginning again to make the most of all the stories. And I’ll need wikipedia closer to hand to fully understand all the honorifics and adjectives!

Author’s webpage: River of Smoke – Amitav Ghosh

The River of Smoke wikipedia page provides a god summary too.