Readers of this review will fall into two categories: (1) Those who are already two-thirds invested in the “Ibis Trilogy,” and (2) Newbies who might be wondering if continuing the perusal of this review is even worth a few minutes due to obvious unfamiliarity.
Here’s my response: (1) Waiting groupies: you will be doing the happy-dance at the arrival of this magnificent finale after almost four long years of (im)patient agony, and (2) Inevitable-groupies-to-be: unfamiliarity has its precious rewards, because you get the absolutely priceless gift of being able to read the entire trilogy without literatus interruptus.
Topping the "Best of"-lists in 2008, the “Ibis Trilogy” debuted with “Sea of Poppies,” in which master storyteller Amitav Ghosh (“The Glass Palace,” “The Hungry Tide”) introduced his cast as if choosing the most fascinating fibers for an intricate tapestry. Each seemingly disparate, narrative strand commingled and converged on the deck of the former slave ship, the Ibis, during its 1838 voyage from India to Mauritius. On the eve of the First Opium War when the Chinese attempted to reclaim their country – and their sobriety – from Western colonialists, the Ibis’s tumultuous journey proved to be a microcosmic clash of caste, race, status, and power.
Three years later, “River of Smoke” garnered similar notable attention. An expanded cast converged in China’s foreign quarter, Fanqui-town, a lively cosmopolitan enclave, in which East and West collided over – what else? – drugs, sex, control. Today’s Mexican narcos and Colombian cartels utterly pale in comparison to these 19th-century British and American opium runners. You might have encountered the distant Opium Wars via textbook facts and figures, but Ghosh’s extraordinary prose ensures an enhanced, visceral experience.
War looms, then implodes, in Flood of Fire, Ghosh’s spectacular “Ibis” finale. The beginning of the end opens back in Bengal, India, populated by the British elite and their local not-quite-equal counterparts. Kesri Singh is at the height of his military career which, as a colonial subject, means his rank does not acknowledge nor employ his exceptional leadership skills; he’s about to learn that the sudden death of his sister’s husband will be the unforeseen catalyst that sends him to war in faraway China.
Zachary Reid, a mixed-race freeman from Baltimore who has been "passing" outside his homeland, has finally been cleared of all treasonous charges resulting from the mutinous Ibis escape; his incurred debts, however, keep him from returning to the high seas, but he is, for now, fortuitously employed by a wealthy British merchant to refurbish a small vessel docked on his estate.
In the genteel Parsi home of the late merchant Bahram Modi, his widow Shireen is shattered to learn that her husband had the son she could never give him with another woman; threatened with financial ruin, she books passage to China to find her husband’s male progeny – because in matters of money, gender matters greatly – in order to reclaim the family’s lost fortune. Meanwhile, Modi’s former munshi (writing secretary), now known as Ah Neel, journals the secrets between the power elite of East and West as he plays no small part in the inevitable conflagrations to come.
So meticulously seamless is Ghosh’s historical research that to distinguish between fact and fiction throughout the trilogy is virtually impossible. Ghosh presents the many "sides" of China’s Opium Wars with multi-dimensional attention, from the Western hierarchies blinded by frenzied, greed-induced control, their colonized subjects who enable the flow of the deadly drugs towards a nation’s utter ruin, and a desperate country trying to staunch their “slowly corroding families, clans, monasteries, the army.”
Innocent individuals caught in the literal crossfire suffer the utmost: “So much death, so much destruction: what was it all for?” a surviving eyewitness asks near title’s end as he overlooks the consequences of war. The final body count, indeed, will surely surprise many.
Beyond the looming Very Important Issues woven throughout – nothing like inhumanity to expose the pernicious vanities of the human race – Ghosh’s formidable literary prowess guarantees a fascinating, fast read; 616 pages never flew by like this.
For those rebels unwilling to start with Book 1, Ghosh makes sure Book 3 stands solidly alone. Of course, recognizing Raja Neel Rattan Halder’s painstakingly detailed “Chrestomathy” from “Sea of Poppies,” being privy to what led to Deeti’s Ibis ejection in “River of Smoke,” and so, so much more, won’t happen unless you read the trio in order. That said, whatever your reading choices, don’t miss the boat – couldn’t resist! – with the astounding, exceptional, "Ibis Trilogy."