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.