River of Smoke, the second installment of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, is a sprawling historical novel that plunges readers into the secretive world of mid-19th-century China at the outset of the Opium Wars. Bahram Modi, an enterprising businessman from Bombay (and the father of Ah Fatt, a character in the previous novel, Sea of Poppies), is hell-bent on delivering one more shipload of opium to Canton before the Chinese authorities outlaw the drug for good. But when, against his wife's wishes, he sets sail, he is motivated more by a thirst for freedom than fortune and by the chance to see his Chinese mistress once again.
Ghosh's Canton is evocative; just outside the walled city, a Babel rife with greed and corruption teems with sailors, merchants and thieves of all nations. His insight into British opium smugglers is particularly brilliant. Although we re-encounter several characters from Sea of Poppies, this tale is essentially Bahram's, and he has more than enough complexity and depth to carry the story on his own. In essence, River of Smoke has everything fans of this genre could ask for--enough historic meat to sink your teeth in with just the right amount of spice to thrill the imagination. --Thomas Lavoie, former publisher