Sea of Poppies was about how a lot of people from various backgrounds find themselves on the Ibis. River of Smoke starts with a magnificently evocative description of Deeti's shrine. The Ibis had landed, after a stormy crossing, at Mauritius. Deeti finds herself in an alien land, with a child, and has to forage for food in the forest there. On one such sojourn she finds a cave in the cliff overlooking the sea. This becomes her shrine, where she draws images from her past life. This is where she starts her family, and establishes a clan.
But we are running ahead. The story where Sea of Poppies ended continues with Raja Neel. Raja Neel finds himself along with Ah Fatt, on way to Canton where Ah Fatt hopes to meet his father the great opium merchant Behram Moddie, owner of the grand ship Anahita. In Canton, we meet an array of new characters. Behram, his Man Friday Vico, the British and American opium merchants, Charles King, Mr. Lindsay, Dent, Wetmore, Jardine.
Essentially it is about how the East India Company forces the farmer to grow opium in India and then sells it to China to suck the wealth out of these countries. Unfortunately for the traders, this is the time when the Emperor of China decides to appoint a tough Commissioner to deal with the issue of widespread Opium addiction that was eating into the social fabric of China. The Commissioner Lin decides to make the traders of Opium pay for their smuggling, both the Chinese and the British. The Britishers are not used to being dictated to by the countries they trade with and try to strike back.
Caught in this crossfire is Bahram Moddie who has staked all his wealth in this last huge consignment. It is a trip that will either make him or break him.
Paulette has been taken on by Fitcher, a botanist who is visiting China to look for a rare plant that he has drawing of. She cannot go to Canton, and has to stay in Hongkong. She runs into Robin, an old playmate from Calcutta, the bastard son of the celebrated painter Chinnery. Robin is in Canton looking to broaden his artistic skills and knowledge. He pledges to help Fitcher and Paulette to look for the elusive plant by tracking the person who made the drawing. In the process, he writes very illustrative, incisive and entertaining letters to his old friend Paulette.
River of Smoke paints a beautiful picture of the language, food, the clothes, the culture, the way of life of these merchants in Canton. It is a brilliant sequel to Sea of Poppies which was more like an introduction to the key characters and their backgrounds.
In one of the blurbs the author was compared to Charles Dickens and Tolstoy. I shook my head after I was done with the book. This is Amitav Ghosh, he stands in a class of his own. It is not fair to compare him with anyone else.