Great novels can often illuminate the causes of major historical events much more clearly than even the most erudite history book. This is certainly the case with River of Smoke, which paints a vivid picture of the dynamics that led to the eruption of the First Opium War and the subsequent carve up of China by the Western Imperialist powers.
In addition to highlighting the arrogance and hypocrisy of the “Free Traders” seeking to sell into China a deadly substance that was banned in their own countries (but who were all too ready to demand support from their home governments when they ran into resistance), it casts light on some lesser known aspects of the China trade such as the import and export of horticultural goods and even the mass copying of paintings.
River of Smoke also neatly captures the hustle and bustle of life in Canton with its highly evocative descriptions of the city’s chaotic streets, waterways, and markets, and shows an almost encyclopedic grasp of historic detail.
If there is a weakness to the book, it’s that it doesn’t have quite the same coherence as the Sea of Poppies, and many of the original storylines that were so brilliantly developed in the first volume of the trilogy seem to fade away without explanation. As a result, apart from Bahram, the Parsi opium trader from Bombay who is the central figure in the book, none of the characters are particularly memorable and in the case of Robin Chinnery and Paulette seem almost reduced to the status of literary device.
Still, that is only a minor criticism and shouldn’t deter anyone from reading this magnificent novel. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before the final volume in the Ibis Trilogy comes out.