Review: River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh

At last, at last! I absolutely loved Sea of Poppies when I read it last summer, and I have been babbling about it a lot since then, especially when in company with Teresa, who loved it first and put me on to it. I have been longing and longing for the second book in the Ibis trilogy to come out for, like, ever. Sea of Poppies ended right when all the characters had finally started hanging out together, and I was so excited to read the new book where they would start out together and interact with each other all the way through.

But then I read some reviews of River of Smoke, and for some reason I got it into my head that it wasn’t a proper sequel that picks up where the first book ended, but more like a Diana Wynne Jones sequel where some of the characters might be around a little bit but don’t count on it. I was disappointed but willing to give Amitav Ghosh the benefit of the doubt. Imagine my delight when River of Smoke picked up — after some not-bad-at-all exposition to tell us previously on the Ibis trilogy — right where Sea of Poppies left off (SPOILERS, obviously, for Sea of Poppies): Neel, Ah Fatt, Jodu, Serang Ali, and Kalua escaping terrible fates on the Ibis, while the others stay behind.

And now imagine my slightly letdownness to find that everyone split up again immediately afterward. Goddammit. Neel and Ah Fatt stayed together, briefly, but I never liked Ah Fatt that much to start with, and he’s not that important to the book as a whole. Ghosh’s twin knacks for lush but not dull descriptions and linguistic awesomeweirdness have not deserted him. Nor has his ability to create vivid, flawed characters who belong utterly to the countries and times that shaped them. (It’s the exact opposite of ExceptoGirl! You can’t imagine Ghosh’s characters being the products of any environments but their own — which, now that I’m articulating it, is a magnificent thing for a writer to be able to do.) The end of the book is also very good: the perfect note of melancholy. Y’all know I love it when a book really ends, not just stops.

I am giving River of Smoke a lower rating than I gave Sea of Poppies, because I now have a concern that these characters are never going to get to play all together! In Sea of Poppies I was sure they would, but after River of Smoke I am way less sure. I love the three new main characters that got invented, because like I said, Ghosh writes good characters, and I want them to play with the others too! I want everyone to get to play! At the same time, in the same place! I want that! As good as River of Smoke was, many of the characters I liked best from Sea of Poppies barely made an appearance at all, or if they did it was only in passing, as if Ghosh wants us to know that he hasn’t forgotten they exist.

Even with its flaws, River of Smoke is — like its predecessor — one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. Go read Sea of Poppies at once — just roll with the language weirdness, you’ll get your sea legs pretty quickly there — and then read River of Smoke for it is good.

Weird little addendum, which includes spoilers for Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia: There is an extent to which all historical fiction is real in my mind. When Paulette’s new friend Fitcher Penrose says something about the community of botanists being fairly small and all known to each other, I immediately thought: I wonder if he’s old enough to have met Ezra Chater. Then in my imagination — which may or may not gel with what we know of his backstory — Fitcher did meet Ezra Chater, on his first botanical voyage as a very young man, and lost his virginity to Mrs. Chater. Teehee.

11 thoughts on “Review: River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh

  1. Yay, a review for River of Smoke! I haven’t read it yet because I want to re-read Sea of Poppies and remind myself what happened, as it’s been a couple of years. That was definitely one of my favourite books as well, historical or not. Ghosh is a fantastic author – what I like especially is that you feel you learn something each time. He’s very good at imparting a history lesson and making you enjoy it.

  2. I actually just bought Sea of Poppies after reading that River of Smoke was such an amazing read. I need to fins some time to get to it and check it out, as I love me some historical fiction that resonates and is realistic. Very nice review on this one, Jenny!

  3. I’m just over halfway through my Sea of Poppies reread on audio, and then I’ll get to River of Smoke. I am distressed to hear that the characters don’t get to be all together! I got the impression too from another review that one of my very favorite characters (Zachary) doesn’t appear much, but that seems weird because he’s so important in Sea of Poppies. I’m holding out hope that the other reviewer just didn’t care much about him and therefore thought of him as a more minor character than he is.

  4. I have been meaning to read Sea of Poppies for a while, but haven’t got around to it yet. I have had it out from the library a couple times, but the timing was never right. With this book being out, I am getting reminded again that I really need to read that book!

  5. Reviewing sequels is indeed hard, but I’m glad people do it because it reminds me that I really need to read the first book. Which is what you did here 😛

  6. It was 3 years ago that I read Sea of Poppies.So long that I have little recall for the characters.

    Like you I waited and wondered when part 2 might arrive.Was in a book store and picked it up then put it down.Later I was at the library and put my name on the reserve list.Figure I can wait a bit longer as I am #8 and save some bucks.

    You would think an author would have the story fairly well thought put when starting trilogy and would issue them with a bit more regularity.

    • Hahahaha, yes, I suppose it would be nice if we could count on regular releases of series books. But I suppose authors can’t manage it, especially in a series that demands as much research as this one must do.

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