Story telling is an art, a way of sharing tales and history of far away lands in such a way the reader is engrossed. Until a few years back it was Sidney Sheldon who has always been my go-to author when it came to engrossed reads. But now I’d say Amitav Ghosh surpasses him for the level of depth and breath he provides to his stories. I picked up the Ibis Trilogy for my birthday and I was curious to read about the sea faring men and the opium war that I vaguely remember reading in my history lessons in school.
Book 1 – Sea of poppies
The Ibis trilogy , consisting of three books is a historical fiction set in the mid 19th century, between 1838 to 40.Against the background of flourishing opium trade between British India and china, the first book Sea of poppies draws the tale of a mélange of characters from India and from the other regions of the world, how their fates converge on the decks of the schooner, Ibis. We have Deeti and her husband from Bihar who are impoverished and forced to leave to Mauritius to work on plantations. We have a Bengali Raja turned convict Neel and a half Parsi Chinese boatman, Miss Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Zachary who rises to an officer status, the crew members and a few others who board the schooner Ibis . The story reaches its vertex when the schooner is hit by a storm and a few main characters make an escape ,there by taking us to book number 2.
Book 2 – River of smoke
The book River of smoke chronicles around two other ships apart from the fateful Ibis. Anahita , a merchant cargo that carries tons of opium and the other is a Reduth , that’s on a botanical expedition. For reasons, both the ships reach Canton and from there on the story spins surround the city of Canton where the Parsis and the British opium sellers together have established monopoly on the opium trade. There is also a parallel story narrated in the form of letters from Robin who is Paulette’s childhood friend. This part of the book was a little boring, slow and I personally did not like it. These letters had details about the characters in Canton, the events happening around the bazaars,but in a little boring manner and I literally skimmed those pages wanting Robin to end his narration. Book2 ends with the onset of the war between the British and the Chinese, which supposedly is the first war of opium in 1840.
Book 3 – Flood of fire
Flood of fire is the final installment of the Ibis Trilogy and is definitely a masterpiece. Being the last book of the series, this brings the tales and fate of all the characters from the first 2 books and weaves them together ,towards a thrilling climax.The parallel stories and the way they meet at Canton which is the focal point is mind blowing or my vocabulary is weak to justify the brilliance of the narration.
The most stunning factor of this is the book doesn’t turn out to be a boring history lesson on Opium war, but moves across capturing the local Hindustani dialects of that era, taste and smell of Canton, naval warfare , military terminologies, battlefield and boudoirs. You would also not be able to differentiate the fact and the fictional part throughout the trilogy and that’s been Gosh ‘s style. You’d definitely be amazed at the level of research that’s gone in to write the description of the events. Speaking about the characters, every single one would have left a mark as you close the book, still imagining the sea and the battlefield.
The first and the third books of the trilogy are fast reads. I don’t remember how the 600+ pages of the last part flew by . Remember ,Amitav Ghosh is never to be taken for a leisure read on a weekend.
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