Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh
Comprised of Sea of Poppies (Published May 2008, Read May/June 2016), River of Smoke (Published June 2011, Read July 2016), Flood of Fire (Published May 2015, Read April 2017)
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥ (of 5 for each)
“How was it possible that a small number of men, in the span of a few hours or minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?
Nothing could be a greater injustice, yet such had been the reality ever since human beings first walked the earth.”
–Flood of Fire, book III
Simply put, the Ibis Trilogy is a masterpiece not just of historical fiction, but of fiction and writing in general. Some of you may know that I love historical fiction. If given a choice between this genre and any other, I will always choose to go on an adventure through the past. Of all of the historical fiction I have ever read in all my years, this trilogy is the best. Amitav Ghosh builds a massive world centered around a barely acknowledged period of history with powerful consequences in our modern world.
As I was reading, I said to someone that Amitav Ghosh is to fiction as Erik Larson is to history. For those of you unfamiliar with Larson, he earned his name as a historian writing works like Devil in the White City, the recently released Dead Wake, and perhaps most famously, In the Garden of Beasts. His books come as close to narrative fiction as it is possible to come without crossing the line. Amitav Ghosh pushes that line from the other side, writing some of the most historically accurate fiction you can find. Ghosh spends great effort to create as true a representation as is possible. He uses primary sources throughout, as well as massive historical research to place us as clearly and cleanly within the First Opium War as possible.
Like most historical fiction, the Ibis Trilogy attempts to create a moral lesson for modern readers, but unlike most books in the genre, Amitav Ghosh is subtle about it. He pulls you along behind the Ibis, the opium transporting merchant vessel that gives the series its name, gradually increasing the force on the rope until you find yourself battered in its wake. Ghosh forces the reader to face the attitudes, realities, and repercussions of imperialism head on as we watch his deftly created characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. He makes you care about these people so that you feel the tug of despair as imperial motives mold them into unrecognizable beings.
The Opium Wars historically, are more or less the beginning of what we know as modern China. The complete rout of Chinese forces in the first and second conflicts ended up destabilizing the Chinese imperial throne, crumbling to give way to the China of the twentieth century. Amitav Ghosh places us in a pivotal moment in order to illuminate the very real people who brought this about from all sides. His cast draws individuals from all over the globe, from Baltimore, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, to the three main political players: China, India, and Britain. Each person finds themselves standing before the massive force of British Imperialism of the nineteenth century, and most, like China, are unable to resist.
In this seemingly impossible moment, however, Ghosh deftly expounds the virtues of diversity, not just in ethnicity, but of ideas, religion, gender, and political inclination. He maneuvers us, the readers, so that we can see that this is a core flaw in capitalism, especially the capitalism imagined during this time period that is still with us today. Through the passengers of the Ibis, we learn that we did not get here today by accident, just as they did not end up on that merchant vessel without explanation.
Amitav Ghosh has created a series with a profound moral lesson that emerges slowly and subtly, allowing us to enjoy the incredible setting he has researched and crafted for us. The Ibis Trilogy is a privilege to read and will remain one of my favorites for many years to come.