River of Smoke is author Amitav Ghosh’s second novel in his trilogy about the opium trade in Southeast Asia. Book one, Sea of Poppies, began the story in 1838 India. It brought together diverse participants in the opium production biz including a widowed opium farmer, French orphans, a bankrupt Raj and a mulatto ship’s captain from America. They and pretty near a cast of thousands all ended up together on the ship Ibis that eventually took them away from the poppy fields along the Ganges and on to Canton.
On the way to Canton, the Ibis, with its load of indentured servants (Slaves for all intensive purposes.) runs into two other ships headed in the same direction. The Anahita which is carrying the largest cargo of opium ever sent from India to China and the Redruth. The Redruth is the ship of horticulturalist, Frederick Penrose who is determined to plunder China’s legendary supply of ‘magical’ plants. The powerful storm that nearly destroys the three ships on the way to Canton continues to affect the survivors’ loyalties, agendas and fears on dry land.
In Sea of Poppies the variety of the characters was large but the geography relatively small. River of Smoke follows the same pattern. There is a wide variety of people and of nationalities in a somewhat confined area. Within Canton is Fanqui-town, a separate city for foreigners. It is a United Nations of Crime. An area seemingly dedicated to keeping the scourge of China, opium addiction, going strong. It is the place where shady independent and foreign government sanctioned businessmen expound the virtues of free trade while the Emperor’s men wage war on the traders’ favorite commodity.
The numbers of characters in River of Smoke multiply as quickly as the subplots do. For me this is a good thing. I like big, chunky novels with enough characters and situations to fill my imagination. Ghosh is well equipped to handle this mighty population he’s created. He moves them in and out of each other’s lives believably and entertainingly with enough complexity and authority to make you want to play hokey and enjoy it all at your leisure.
I do have one complaint with both Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The colloquial language. Rather it’s the lack of a glossary for the colloquial language. I would like to know what the words “gubbrowed” and “sakubays” mean. Is that asking too much?
My lack of 19th century multilingual-ness aside, River of Smoke is both an excellent sequel to Sea of Poppies and a fabulous stand alone novel. It is rich and rewarding. It is also unique. This is not storytelling via the victor’s perspective. Here is the tale you haven’t heard, the underside of history. The depth of character development, plotting, historical detail and social awareness that Amitav Ghosh has filled River of Smoke with makes this a feast for the reader.