Ibis Trilogy is a work of historical fiction by author Amitav Ghosh comprising of Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire. The first came out in 2008 and the last, in 2015. I had read Sea of Poppies in 2011, before River of smoke was released and I remember being amazed at the richness of the account. Since then I have read River if Smoke and just finished Flood of Fire and here are my thoughts about the triogy.
Plot of the Ibis Trilogy
Ibis Trilogy is set in the early 19th century with a backdrop of the first opium war. At the heart of books is the ship Ibis. Sea of Poppies concentrates on the Mauritius bound Ibis carrying labourers, traders and even prisoners from Calcutta to Mauritius. The River of Smoke looks at the opium trade in Canton. The Flood of Fire culminates the stories together in a grand finale at the time when British take over Hong Kong from China.
What I liked about the Ibis Trilogy
I am absolutely in awe of the author to have maintained the same writing style and characters across seven years and an extremely complex narrative. Amitav Ghosh is a master storyteller who lets you identify with each character so well that there are no villains in the books. Each character does what they have to and the effects of their actions are felt by many others. The Ibis Trilogy is a lesson in characterisation. Amongst the multitude of them, each stands their own due to individual characteristics be it physical, be it the manner of speech, or their beliefs and motivations. Each character had an impeccable back story, everything from the language they spoke to the situations they found themselves in took me back into the era gone by. The descriptions in the books are so vivid that I saw the story instead of reading it. The language used is unlike the language of the current age of authors (wannabe ones like me, included). Throughout the ibis trilogy, the same tone of descriptive language is manitained. The conversations include a fair amount of bangla, some hindustani, some bhojpuri and even chinese pigdin. These are incorporated beautifully with the dialogue starting with a simple phrase and then a description in English. These phrases do not break the narrative if you are not familiar with the langiages but they add to the richness of the characters. Even the british conversations are peppered with some hindi words written the way a british merchant or officer would speak.
Long ago, I was told that a good book is one in which your protagonist undergoes a major change. Going by that parameter alone, the book is excellent because each character undergoes a lifechanging experience in the book. The external factors are the politically and commercially motivated decisions of the players in the opium trade. However, it is the actions of even the minor players that create ripple effects. There are no loose threads in the story.
Finally, let me applaud the grasp on the subject the author has. History is not just historical events. History is the people of that time, the kind of things they did, the worries of that age, the celebrations…. the very environment. I got a glimpse of that in these books.
What I did not like about the Ibis Trilogy
There is very little I did not like in this book. The only thing that made it difficult to read was that along with different story lines, the author kept jumping timelines. There are parallel narratives going on.
Final thoughts on the Ibis Trilogy
To conclude, I would highly recommend the Ibis Trilogy. If you are planning to write a novel, this is a great example of how master story tellers create interweaving plots. If you like to read books that teach you about something, the Ibis Trilogy teaches you that centuries may have passed but basic human emotions of love, greed, sacrifice, freedom and duty have not changed. The books take you to the grass root of developments, looking at the microscopic and macroscopic alike. They tell you what most history text books do not. Pick these books for an enriching literary experience.
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