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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Continues to amaze and entertain!
One of the benefits of a summer trip to London is to discover that a much anticipated new book is available there before its United States publication date. So much to my surprise I was able to purchase Amitar Ghosh's new book, the second of his Ibis trilogy, RIVER OF SMOKE. The first book being the outstanding SEA OF POPPIES which I read in 2009. Ghosh continues to amaze...
Published on September 27, 2011 by Bobby D.

versus
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as Sea of Poppies; too didactic
Sea of Poppies was a very good picaresque novel, with a sensibility for its characters somewhat like Dickens, a mixture of compassion and condemnation, though generally not unsympathetic toward those it condemned. This second novel in the series has many characters that only exist, seemingly, to parrot ideological positions. The "free trade" fanqui community is a...
Published on February 12, 2012 by J. P. Craig


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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Continues to amaze and entertain!, September 27, 2011
By 
Bobby D. (Cerritos, CA) - See all my reviews
One of the benefits of a summer trip to London is to discover that a much anticipated new book is available there before its United States publication date. So much to my surprise I was able to purchase Amitar Ghosh's new book, the second of his Ibis trilogy, RIVER OF SMOKE. The first book being the outstanding SEA OF POPPIES which I read in 2009. Ghosh continues to amaze with his newest volume as both an excellent writer and story teller. I can not wait for the concluding volume in a few years.

The trilogy is told against the backdrop of the Opium wars of the early 1800s. The first book took many characters to tell the story of how the Opium was produced by the East India Company in India. These characters all found their way to becoming passengers on the ship "Ibis" and the book ends with a great storm and its various character plot lines are cast off without clean endings. So I for one expected that the second book would continue with this same group of characters and there individual stories. Hoping I guess that they all would continue to star in Ghosh's epic production. This was not to be as Ghosh opens SMOKE with what I found to be an extremely muddled opening chapter or two. But then things get going and we also discover that Ghosh has something larger in mind. The story he intends to tell is that of the Opium trade itself. His characters and thier stories provide an entertaining window on a world dominated by Opium and its impact on lives and history. The research in this book is astounding. You can feel, see, and smell every part of Canton, China where the setting has now moved from India. This is not a story told in hindsight... it is told in real time with what one recognizes must be real peoples reactions to real time events . The book reaches an incredibly high benchmark for historical fiction writing.

As book two begins we are introduced to two other ships who are riding out the storm (with the Ibis?). One has as a passenger, Paulette who is brought forward from the first book and wants to re-discover a rare flower China is rumored to have that is said to cure almost anything. The other ship has the book's new main character Bahram Modi, an Indian, the father of Ah Fatt who is also one of the carry over characters from POPPIES. Bahram invests everything in one big gamble... taking a huge shipment of Opium from India to China. We are introduced to him and his cargo as they sail though a huge storm as he fights against the real possibility of his losing his cargo and investment. When he arrives in Canton,China he finds that the Emperor of China has decide to now close Chinese ports to the Opium trade. A trade that has all along been illegal in China. The British profited greatly by trading opium in exchange for Tea and other Chinese goods. This they did in the name of "free trade" and the rule of "markets" with no concern what Opium's impact on China was. It does not take much for the reader to recognize that Ghosh has found an historical parallel for today's globalization. He focuses on the clash of culture, empire, ambition, profiteering, art, language and love.

I liked these lines found near the end of the book, "Am I wrong to think that it was you who said that the involvement of a government representative would be a perversion of the laws of free trade? This is no longer a matter of trade...it now concerns our persons, our safety. Oh I see!....The government is to you what God is to agnostics - only to be invoked when your own well-being is at stake!" And another line that demonstrates the larger ambition of the narrative, "And what was it all for...... Was it just for this: so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?"
To paraphrase Ghosh, if he had not written such a splendid novel about Canton no one would believe that such a place had ever existed. This is the second part of an amazingly entertaining read. Don't miss out.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Prelude to an Opium War, September 27, 2011
The River of Smoke is the second installment of Amitav Ghosh's entertaining and informative Ibis trilogy. Is reading the first volume required? Technically, no.

But, the stories are linked in a clumsy fashion, and at least one of the main characters in River of Smoke cannot be fully appreciated in TRS without having read the first volume Sea of Poppies. And, Gosh is painting a broad canvas that includes the British poppy industry and its corrupting affect on Indian society. So, it helps to more fully appreciate Gosh's story to read both volumes.

The Sea of Poppies largely describes the Indian poppy growing and manufacturing industry in 1838. The passage describing an opium factory itself makes the book a worthwhile read. The River of Smoke (TRoS) places its characters in the historical events of 1838-39, when the Chinese succeeded briefly in expelling English opium traders from the international center of Canton.

Ghosh's narrative captures in detail the emergence of Chinese resistance to the growing opium trade. There is tremendously relevant back and forth between the traders and the Chinese (including arguments repeated today to justify various global trade policies). And, the characters in his story are pushed and pulled by material and ethical concerns that are still relevant today.

For those unfamiliar with Ghosh's writing, he is very much from the Dumas, Hugo, Dickens lineage in literature. His books are as comfortable and traditional as overstuffed furniture in front of a fire in the den on a wintry night.

I read both volumes of the trilogy back-to-back and would have read the third consecutively if it had been available.

The characters in TRoS are a little more complex than in SoP, but ambiguity is not a staple of these books. Good people are corrupted by the opium trade and its proliferation. It's an historical fact that the trade for the four years ending in 1839 expanded several times over and while not getting into numbers, Ghosh's story reflects this fact.

The English do not come off well in Ghosh's portrayal. And this is not to say that they should. But the fact that the Chinese emperors allowed the opium trade for as long as they did is given but lip service and that from one of the more repugnant characters in the book.

Some readers have expressed surprise that TRoS did not make the Booker Prize list this year. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise as the book does have its faults.

The linkage of the two books seems clunky on two accounts: 1) characters prominent in the first volume inexplicably fade to the background in the TRoS, after it seemed that the characters would assume major roles at the end of SoP; and 2) the roles assigned to some characters who are carried over seem superfluous. The character of Deeti, who assumed leadership of the Indian immigrants in SoP inexplicably is nearly a ghost in TRoS. What's that about?

Ghosh does increase interest in TRoS by exploring themes of a global economy. Economic historians frequently point out that the 19th century featured freer trade globally than we do in today's more regulated environment. Clearly Ghosh sees the harm in letting market forces, and those who invariably manipulate them, rule.
But Ghosh seems to be setting up a third volume which could explore to some degree the emergence of India and China as emerging economies, which of course is highly relevant to our global economy today.

Enjoy!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as Sea of Poppies; too didactic, February 12, 2012
By 
J. P. Craig (Montgomery, AL, United States) - See all my reviews
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Sea of Poppies was a very good picaresque novel, with a sensibility for its characters somewhat like Dickens, a mixture of compassion and condemnation, though generally not unsympathetic toward those it condemned. This second novel in the series has many characters that only exist, seemingly, to parrot ideological positions. The "free trade" fanqui community is a particularly egregious collection of pasteboard cutouts. All this despite a beautiful, lyrical beginning to the novel. It sadly slides away from the stories of people to the broadest of cartoon sketches of the outset of the Opium War, as well as a (deserved) attack on neoliberalism.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can Erudition Be Bad?, November 22, 2011
By 
sephardit (Washington DC) - See all my reviews
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No finer storyteller than Amitov Ghosh can be found, but this novel is more ethnography than adventure, truer to the anthropologist Ghosh than to Ghosh the skillful weaver of tall tales. Like many other Ghosh fans, I eagerly awaited the further adventures of the characters I had grown to love in Sea of Poppies. That Paulette here spends so many pages furthering her knowledge of botany is commendable, but it hardly compares to her previous life as a ward of the fussy Burnhams, her bold departure from them, and her emotional involvements with Jodu and Zachary. It's hard to love River of Smoke's Bahram the way one loved Sea of Poppies' Kalua, hard to stick with the narrative expositions of Neel and Ah Fat after sharing in their deprivation, degradation and remarkable bonding during the Ibis voyage. To enjoy this book it's best to settle in, yield to Ghosh's marvelous facility with languages, his vivid descriptions of places and conditions, his erudite grasp of detail. And the stirring universality of his message comes through despite the narrow historic and geographical focus of his tale.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars wish this book had offered..., November 12, 2011
By 
Isis "Isis M" (Norwalk, CT United States) - See all my reviews
A glossary of the many words in other languages would have been very helpful. Also, the different names for the same characters made it difficult to keep the characters straight, especially when they disappeared for major lengths of time. Nonetheless, Ghosh definitely created an evocative picture of life around Canton during the earlier opium trade years.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Review - River of Smoke, October 18, 2011
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Just finished reading Amitav Gosh's new book, the second of the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is primarily based in eastern India, the production center for opium controlled by British companies and businessmen. The second book is mostly based in Canton, the gateway to opium smuggling into rest of China. It is an interesting book and gives the reader a good understanding the events leading to the Opium Wars. As a management consultant I couldn't help notice that the trilogy progressing along the opium value chain and how the business men (drug lords) justify their actions in the name of basic human right of "free trade."

The book has a cast of characters - Chinese and foreigners in Canton - and like a number of past characters in Gosh's books, one gets to see a land from the eye of an expat or a foreigner. I personally enjoy this style as it provides a certain amount of objectivity and sometimes provides a global context to events.

The only part of the book which I did not enjoy much was the long letters that Robert Chinnery, a new character introduced in this book, writes to Paulette Lambert (Puggly). The letters begin with Robert telling Puggly about Canton and these letters though informative are like social or historical lessons. It seems like Gosh wanted to give us a full picture of Canton and uses the letters as a device.

Definitely a book to read and I will wait for the last book of the trilogy. Now to talk about the film adaptation; who do you think would be the best director to take on this project?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story well told, October 10, 2011
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Ghosh's new book - River of Smoke - is the second book in his 'Ibis' trilogy. While the first book - Sea of Poppies - was set in India and Bay of Bengal, the second takes us on a journey to Canton. Ghosh is able to bring to life the people of that time - traders, workers, officials, artists, cooks, and comfort providers - in what at that time must have been must have been among the most exciting places in the World. One finds characters that are from varied backgrounds, perspectives and compulsions, characters that are wrestling between what is convenient and what is right, and those that tread in the extremes without facing a dilemma. You also have a wounded civilization trying to come to terms with unrestrained greed of the East India Company.

Like its predecessor, River of Smoke too is a page-turner and well written. It depicts the drivers of the Cantonese trade during the period immediately before the first Opium war, the actions taken by the incorruptible Chinese High Commissioner to address opium smuggling, and the strategic response of the British so as to get an excuse for retaliation. The book ends at a point where British have an excuse for a war. While the outcome of war itself is known a uncertainty and suspense remains about the lives of the main characters of the book. I wait eagerly for the third installment.

For me this book was especially enjoyable - I had been to the Canton recently and what I saw there helps me connect with the book better. The heady cocktail of spices that marks Cantonese food and variety of foods that they are able to assemble for a meal is very remarkable, very real and still extant. Also very real is the openness of the Cantonese people to try new things and new ideas - no wonder they make such good entrepreneurs. Ghosh has done a commendable job researching on the context in which his novel is set - it shows through his work.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Read, October 31, 2011
I am posting this review without having read Sea of Poppies (or any of Ghosh's other works - in fact, I had never heard of Ghosh until I read this book).

River of Smoke is a fascinating tale about the lives of a motley group of characters and their interactions with one another and others in the Chinese port city of Canton. At its core is a thorough examination of the opium trade in the early 19th century East Asia through which American and British merchants enriched themselves at the cost of many Chinese lives. As such, it is a fascinating account of the events that led to the Opium Wars between the West and China. River of Smoke is not, of course, a monograph. Its backdrop and the mannerisms, languages and cultures of its characters, however, have been thoroughly researched and are based on actual historical accounts. In any case, River of Smoke is a fine work of historical fiction (though somewhat long) that will keep you entertained for days.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Much Detail, November 4, 2011
By 
George E. Davis (Philadelphia, PA) - See all my reviews
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When starting this novel I was expecting to read a continuation of the first book of the trilogy , Sea Of Poppies. Took me awhile to realize that wasn't going to happen. This novel is a completely different story but not as interesting as the first one. The main story is about an opium smuggler and is very interesting. Unfortunately, there are two side stories, one about an artist and one about a horticultralist. I didn't find these two stories very interesting. Also the novel is layered with vast amounts of detailed explanations of everything. The novel could easily be 100 pages less. You do learn a lot about the opium trade with China during this period of history and also how China was governed. Unlike the Sea Of Poppies this novel has an ending. On the whole I am glad I struggled through it but can give it only three stars.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant Indian novel about the 19th Century opium trade, December 24, 2012
By 
Mal Warwick (Berkeley, California) - See all my reviews
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Balzac (and lots of people after him) thought that "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Nowhere is that aphorism more baldly illustrated than in the 19th-Century opium trade that enriched England, Scotland, and the United States and created a score of hereditary fortunes that have left their mark on the world for nearly two centuries since. After all, when Europeans introduced China to the practice of mixing opium with tobacco in the mid-18th Century, the one-sided trade in Chinese porcelain, tea, silk, and other goods was rapidly draining Europe of silver and reinforcing China's position as the world's richest country. The opium trade reversed that trend. Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China's nearly two-century-long decline was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR's grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T.

River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh's planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons.

Ghosh's sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War. The central plot-line follows the journey of a poor Indian Parsi (Zoroastrian) named Bahram who had risen to lead the trade division of a celebrated Mumbai shipbuilding company owned by his wealthy in-laws. Though not yet rich himself, Bahram has become the dean of the Indian opium traders, realizing profits for the family as great as those of many of the British and Americans but, in the racist fashion of the times, he is looked down upon as "inferior." However, he comes to play a principal role in the traders' increasingly tense and threatening dealings with the newly energized Chinese government, which has resolved to end the opium trade. (Bahram is the author's invention, but the English and American traders depicted in the novel come straight from the pages of history.)

Any lover of language will find the writing of Amitav Ghosh irresistible. I certainly did. Both the dialogue and the narrative text in Sea of Poppies were enchanting. Ghosh had immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries and wordlists of 1830s India and Britain to reproduce the language and the vocabulary of not one but several English dialects. In fact, a great many of the novel's characters are historical figures who left behind memoirs, letters, parliamentary testimony, and other records, and as Ghosh notes in his acknowledgments, "Much that is said in this book is taken from [the characters'] own words." Even more colorful is the hybrid language that emerged from the marriage of English and Hindi and surfaces in dialogue throughout the book. But in River of Smoke, it's the pidgin of 19th-Century Canton that stands out, and wonderful it is to behold!
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River of Smoke: A Novel (Ibis Trilogy)
River of Smoke: A Novel (Ibis Trilogy) by Amitav Ghosh (Paperback - October 2, 2012)
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