“Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh – review

“Flood of Fire” is the final part of the Ibis trilogy, following on from “Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke”.  I should say from the outset, this is one of those times when you absolutely must read the books in order or you’ll be lost within minutes!   In fact, although I read parts two and three in fairly quick succession it was a long time since I’d read the first instalment, and to be honest I struggled to recall many of the plot details that were crucial to the trilogy’s conclusion.  So my advice, before I even start reviewing, is get your hands on part one and if you enjoy it crack straight on with volumes two and three before you lose track!

The complex nature of the plotting across the three novels is one of the reasons I love the books so much.  I can’t even use the usual analogies of a web or tapestry, as they suggest a plot that grows steadily outwards from a starting point.  I would say it’s more like crazy paving: fragments of people and places pop up, disappear and reappear, only forming a coherent whole in the final moments when the structure is complete and you can finally stand back and appreciate it in its entirety.  The trilogy’s lynchpin is the Ibis, a ship that we come across right at the beginning carrying a motley crew of passengers from all corners of the globe.  From there the story takes us to India, China and all the high seas in between.  We meet sailors, botanists, smugglers, opium dealers and petty criminals, all playing their part in the momentous events that form the backdrop to the story: the Opium Wars.

By the time “Flood of Fire” takes place the Opium Wars are reaching their peak.  Whereas the conflict of the first two novels is mostly emotional and cultural, in this final part it becomes actual military action.  The various military campaigns are unquestionably crucial to the plot, as almost all the book’s characters become caught up in them in some way, but for me they were the least interesting sections to read.  That’s not to say the author foregoes his human stories for the sake of dry accounts of military procedure: all the battles are seen through the eyes of those taking part in the brutality and the effect on the combatants is very clear.  I guess for me, detailed descriptions of warfare are simply not something I like to read.  Every other aspect of the novel, though, I thought was superb.  The thing I found most remarkable was how skilfully the author juggles a cast of characters extending into numbers that in many novels would seem ridiculous.  Nobody’s story feels redundant and nobody’s story makes you skim through the pages until you get back to someone interesting.  The fate of some individuals definitely took me by surprise; some strands of the story end neatly but others hint at more uncertain futures to come, all the more intriguing because we know they will never be revealed.

If you’ve read any other Amitav Ghosh novels this one will definitely not disappoint.  If you haven’t, I would possibly recommend trying one of his standalone books (“The Glass Palace” is my favourite of these) before tackling this trilogy.  And if, like me, you’ve been waiting eagerly for “Flood of Fire” for some time then I can assure you it’s well worth the wait.


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