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on 7 May 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I confess I was swithering whether to award 4 or 5 stars for this book, but had to come down in favour of 5. I loved Sea of Poppies and this book is even more densely told, packed with detail, and both the devil and the angel here are in the detail. The story is sprawling, and covers in detail the year or so following the events of Sea of Poppies (and I'm very glad I still had my copy of Sea of Poppies to refer to, especially at the beginning).
Not all the characters in the first book are followed in detail, some of the most important are hardly mentioned, though the first part involves Deeti and her family on the island of Mauritius. Instead we concentrate mainly on Neel, Paulette and her childhood playmate Edward (Robin) Chinnery, whose character comes alive in his letters to Paulette; the opium smuggling in Canton, the search for exotic plants, especially the golden camellia, largely in the nearly empty wastes of the island of Hong Kong and the fortunes of the Fami on the lush island of Mauritius.
Packed with detail, as I have said. I knew very little of the Opium trade and the fat cat British, American and assorted merchants of the Fanqui-town district of Canton who put profit before all else (so what else is new?), and I found it all fascinating, together with the intertwined story of the plants. The book exposes the hypocrisy of the times mercilessly, and does noone any favours.
The language is a rich mix of pidgin and the current venacular, and I found it easy and rewarding to follow. I had a slight quibble with names: as in Russian literature all the Asian characters answer to several names each and it isn't always easy to work out who is who, but that is a minor point and all becomes clear eventually.
One abiding image remains with me: in the womanless enclave of Fanqui-town balls are held and the spectacle of, among other male couples, Mr Jardine sedately dancing the waltz with Mr Wetmore is not easily banished from the mind.
All you could ask for is in this book. Great atmosphere and sense of place, splendid narrative, strong characters (especially Indian merchant Bahram Modi) both fictional and historical, violence, cupidity, stupidity, love of all kinds and the promise of more to come, I hope before too many more years have elapsed.
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VINE VOICEon 25 May 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Readers coming here by chance should know that this is the second instalment of The Ibis Trilogy, and are advised to check out Sea of Poppies (SoP) first. To readers looking to find out if this is a worthy sequel to SoP, my answer is yes, but not unreservedly. Those expecting the continuing story of our friends from the first part, will be disappointed that whilst some of them figure prominently, most are awarded only cameo roles in the ongoing saga. Inevitably this means a new cast of characters to assimilate, and yet another journey with multiple names through alternating narratives.

River of Smoke (RoS) conjures up Canton, around 1838/9, particularly the foreign merchants' enclave and the Pearl River: both inextricably linked to the opium trade. Aboard the Anahita, Bahram Modi is in danger of losing his biggest shipment of opium yet, whilst on the Redruth, Paulette and Mr Penrose are plant hunting for a very special Camellia. Paulette and Penrose are aided in Canton by Paulette's childhood friend and artist Robin Chinnery. Their disparate stories are drawn tighter and tighter as the Chinese Emperor, desperate to face his ancestors with a clean conscience when he dies, seeks to banish forever a drug that has enslaved his people.

Deeti's shrine in Mauritius opens the novel, and its portraits, drawn on the walls by visitors, and introduced to curious children, draw the reader neatly in. It's a fine device, allowing for a brief recap and a filling-in of sorts, from when we left the storm-stricken Ibis at the end of SoP. The novel is subdivided into 3 sections: Islands, Canton and Commissioner Lin, and further subdivided into two main threads: the opium traders and the plant hunters.

Though no part is free from opium's pernicious influence, our plant hunters' narratives posit that the spirit of exploration and free trade can flourish legitimately. Here Chinnery's presence, epistolary in form, is a delight. His effusive missives bring moments of humour and pathos that counterbalance the novel's darker side perfectly. Opium pervades the other main thread, smuggled in by a Committee of merchants who are blinded by greed to greater or lesser extents. Ghosh takes on the complex matters underlying the trade, and probes the reader's conscience too, ostensibly by using our sympathies for Bahram as leverage against our own better judgement. Those familiar with the history of the first Opium War will recognise the book's events as its catalyst, and the author has fleshed out this historical background in meticulous detail.

Meticulous also is the language. Not the prose itself, which is languid in all but occasional descriptive flashes; it is the spoken language which brings this novel to life. RoS is told in a melting-pot of vocabularies, borrowing from Gujarati, English, pidgin, Hidusthani, French and elsewhere to manipulate pace and meaning. Ghosh exploits this linguistic hotchpotch's capacity for humorous misunderstandings as expertly as he uses the waiting period involved in the translation and revelation of the imperial edicts to introduce dramatic tension. It is here in the improvisations of language, where the energy and daring of this work reside.

Whilst it's true that I did struggle at the beginning to work my way through all the new characters, and a part of me rebelled against this second instalment not being a simple continuation of the first ... such is the power of Ghosh's storytelling, the creation of his world and people, that my quibbles were soon swept away down the bustling streets of 19th century Canton....
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VINE VOICEon 5 July 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I heard Amitar Ghosh talking about River of Smoke, this second-part to the Ibis trilogy, on the BBC World Service. He was so interesting that when the opportunity arose for me to read this book I grabbed the chance. I came at it backwards, though, since I now have to read part one, Sea of Poppies. Even without having read the first part, the story is amazing and the historical facts so true it makes one despair of First-World governments ever dealing fairly and honestly and justly with those outside this realm.
Ghosh is an amazing writer and even though you will need a dictionary beside you to get the exact meaning of some of the words so much can be learned just through the reading. The characters come alive on the pages and the latter section that deals with the confrontation between the British opium sellers and the Chinese authorities is thrilling in the true sense of the word; a real page-turner.
I have read some complaints about the subplot being not quite up to par and in some sense I would have to agree. But in the back of my mind I wonder if this won't be dealt with in part three of the trilogy so I don't want to knock it too much. In fact, as the sub-plot deals with plants and finding new plants, the care of plants at sea on a ship and the search for the elusive yellow camelia, it is very interesting in its own right. The action part of the book, however, is definitely the opium sellers and the confrontation that leads to war (probably to be covered in part three).
Every descriptive detail is so precise that one can almost smell the different spices and foods, and the not-so-nice smells also. Clothing is also wonderfully described.
It is just such an enjoyable read that I am racing to read the first part, Sea of Poppies and can't wait for part three to be published.
I highly recommend this series, especially if you enjoy historical fiction set in foreign parts that is precise in accuracy and delightful in expression.
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VINE VOICEon 18 May 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Part two of the Ibis trilogy following Sea of Poppies is densely plotted and, although it is not strictly necessary, I would advise reading "Poppies" first. Ghosh sets his tale in the events leading up to the first Opium war of 1839. His characters are expertly drawn and his depiction of the effect of colonialism in the East is brilliantly captured showing the arrogance and bigotry that prevailed in rich colours.

The story itself has a real underlying drive and is immensely satisfying but where Ghosh really scores is in his magical use of language. Words flow pell mell in a mixture of pidgin, hindustani, gujarati and others and, while you don't need to know the exact meaning of everyword, they appear on the page rich in imagery. Budmashing and Cumshaw being two examples.

This was a hugely enjoyable read and I hope the long hiatus between the appearance of parts one and two is not repeated as we eagerly await the final instalment. very highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The River of Smoke was a pleasant surprise. Amitav Ghosh's previous novel, Sea of Poppies, was rather unbalanced. It sold itself as a story of a sea crossing when the life on the ship took only the last third of the book and was left incomplete. The ending was unsatisfactory and the text was overladen with long lists of foreign words, presumably in an effort to create an atmosphere.

River of Smoke is a case of same-same but different. It is just as laden with meandering backstory; has similar lists of foreign words and the plot can become confusing - not least because so many characters operate under so many aliases. Somehow, though, the evocation of Fanqui Town (Canton) is much more vivid than the evocation of Calcutta in Sea of Poppies. The foreign words are set into a context that allows their meanings to be clearer; the links to the outside world offer a release from what could have become claustrophobic. Crucially the characters seem much more interesting - the contrast between the botanists, the opium traders and the delightfully camp Robin Chinnery works well. The mix of races and nationalities - the Chinese, the Indians, the British, the Americans and a cameo from Napoleon himself create a really vibrant feel. Most of all, Ghosh's characters are very OTT - brash, arrogant, greedy and mostly very, very stupid.

River of Smoke is long and after about two thirds there is a wish that it would end quickly. But the ending is satisfying; it doesn't feel like a hook for a further novel. This may be the second book in a trilogy but it doesn't show. It is a class act; rich in language and texture, satisfying in story.
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VINE VOICEon 21 July 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The advice of another reviewer to read the first book in this trilogy is of course in retrospect the right one. I struggled with the complexities of the characters in the first few chapters which made picking this up a bit difficult. So many words and names were being thrown at me by the author that there was a very serious temptation to put the book down. I'll be honest and say I really struggled on through those first few chapters and if I'd been laying on a hot beach somewhere, the book would probably have gone back into my travel bag and not seen the light of day again. Even after those first few chapters there were still sections of dialogue in `pidgin' that I felt the temptation to pass by. However by sticking with this book a rich and deep story emerges that (with one or two minor errors) tells of a history of exploration, commerce, deceit and drugs. This book is not a `light' read, but is worth the effort if you are interested in an intelligent piece of storytelling.
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on 13 January 2016
Even better than Sea of Poppies (and that's saying something!), set in the run-up to the first opium war in 1839, with an Indian Parsee opium trader caught up in the politicking between the East India Company, trying to foist their most profitable product on China, while the Chinese government tries to enforce a widely flouted ban on it. The historical background is impeccably researched, with the narrative carefully woven into the historical facts. Genuine historical figures speak with words they genuinely used, which Ghosh has dug up from original sources, while his fictional characters, as usual, speak in varieties of English that must themselves have taken some serious research to reproduce as beautifully as Ghosh has (you may however want to have a copy of the Hobson-Jobson to hand to check the exact meanings of some of the terms they use).
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on 6 December 2013
This is the second book in Amitav Ghosh's IBIS trilogy. I have to say, I wasn't over-impressed by the first book (Sea of Poppies). At times the characterisations and plot felt a bit contrived and clichéd. Nevertheless I decided to persevere with the second book and I'm very glad I did!

River of Smoke begins with an update on some of the main characters from Sea of Poppies but then focuses on just a couple of them (mainly Neel, the deposed Raja and Pauline Lambert, the young French botanist). It also introduces some brilliant new characters and moves the action from India to Canton where it exposes the horrific extent of the English "trade" in opium. Ghosh spares us no gory detail and paints a truly awful image of both the extent to which British Traders were prepared to go to protect their illicit trade and the destructive effect on the Chinese people.

I thought the characterisations were much stronger than in Sea of Poppies. Particularly well-developed are two of the new characters, Seth Bahram Modi, who is caught between wanting to live a good religious life and yet continue to provide for his family through trading opium, and the enigmatic Robin Chinnery, whose letters manage to both evoke the conversational ease and joviality with which we might write to friends whilst containing a wealth of historical detail. In fact the historical detail is another great strength of the book and has clearly been painstakingly researched yet is (almost) always seamlessly integrated so as not to appear like an ad-hoc history lesson tacked onto the novel.

There are initially several different strings to the plot as we follow the characters' journeys to Canton. But eventually they all weave together rather cleverly. I have no doubt that Ghosh will work out how to link the story back to the other initial characters in the final instalment (Flood of Fire, due early 2015) and I can't wait to read what happens.
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on 22 July 2013
The story of ultimate greed continues as the fog clears as the hapless destitutes come to Canton. The environment and atmosphere is very nicely presented by Amitav as the two opposing point of views are laid out for the reader to decipher.Is opium import justified under free trade and are the British and foreign traders exempt from Chinese law when trading in China? I cannot wait to read the third in this great trilogy.
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on 18 December 2013
River of Smike is the 2nd in the Ibis Trilogy. I first read Sea of Poppies (in paperback) and was so enthralled that I ordered River of Smoke the same day that I finished Sea of Poppies and I was not dissappopinted. Sea of Poppies deals with the growth and production of opium in India in the mid 1800's and also the way in which people were transported from India to provide cheap labour in (I think) Mauritius once the slave trade had been abolished. I became so involved with the characters that I could not wait to follow their story. River of Smoke picks up one two or three of characters and tells their story when they end up, by various means, in the trading enclave outside Canton. The stories are cleverly interwoven and the revolvs around the built up of the tensions between the Chinese who want to stop the importation of opium and the English (the East India Comapny), Amercains and Indians who are make such incredible profits from transporting opium from India to China. It culminates with the traders being driven from Canton immediatly prior to the opium wars.

This is a fascinating epic, not only are the characters draw you in but the books are brilliantly researched and very informative. This is an era of history which was not taught in schools in my time and of which I was woefully ignorant. I am now eagerly awaiting volume 3 in the trilogy. Highly recommended.
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