The Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Gosh finds it's end with Flood of Fire.
Amitav Ghosh’s conclusion to his Ibis trilogy has taken four years to arrive, and I would like to be quite clear at the start of this review that it has been worth the wait: in my reading, I registered surprise, puzzlement, even concern at times, but never disappointment.

Set in the climactic year of the first Opium War, the book is an effective portrayal of the chaos and tragedy of the events, told primarily through the eyes of non-white, non-British characters. In a market dominated by the literary equivalents of costume dramas and clones of Iggulden and Cornwell books (which are, in turn, largely clones of the author’s other books), this is deeply refreshing. It may not be a perfect conclusion to the series, but I read to the end of this remarkable addition to the historical novel genre with more excitement than I’ve been able to bring to a novel in months.

The narrative begins by picking up yet more of the pieces from the dénouement of the first book in the series, Sea of Poppies: we see the passions of that first book dissected in the courts of Calcutta and in the abbatoir of Imperial justice. Those who have read the previous books will not be surprised by the results of this process: the courts are not a space of legal contention, but a trap for those who do not have the knowledge or resources to manipulate the system. As such, these opening chapters ground the novel’s narrative, creating the sense of entrapment and imprisonment that surrounds its characters. An intense claustrophobia frequently emerges in these early chapters, and Ghosh keeps the underlying desperation of the characters as an abiding presence: throughout the book, we see the characters move towards the inevitable climax under the slow, grinding pressure of the Imperial machine.

It is Ghosh’s deep and abiding knowledge of the workings of this machine that forms the basis for the book’s most gripping elements: Ghosh renders the interlocking parts of British imperialism comprehensible in human terms, in a way that is as shocking and revelatory as any scholarly book. This is unquestionably Ghosh’s forte, and he pulls together the pieces of the puzzle – the gears of greed, duty, aspiration, desire – that ensnare the book’s separate characters and bring them together to become a part of the same barbaric act. Ghosh makes a kind of cold brilliance out of this practice, whereby characters each become pawns in the schemes of other characters; only the terrifying opium trader (and hypocrite) Mr. Burnham occasionally manifests himself as the axis about which they all, at different times, must turn.

Perhaps the strongest plank in Ghosh’s edifice of interlocking narratives is that of Kesri Singh, a character who appears here for the first time. Ghosh reveals to us the steps that transform the naive Bihari boy, seeking to follow in the footsteps of his soldier father and grandfather, into a slaughterer of Chinese soldiers. No moment better illustrates this book’s capacity for grotesque, tragic-comic revelation than when the young Kesri comes to understand that, in the sepoy regiment he has joined, he has signed himself away to become the tool of the family cabal that actually runs the regiment. In sketching the absolute power over these young men that military discipline offers the regiment’s NCOs (who are ably abetted by the racist disinterest of the white officers), Ghosh finds the Kafkaesque heart of his story. His ability to show us this world from the inside makes for disturbing, fascinating reading.

Ghosh falters, however, when the demands of his grand narrative seem to become too much for his characters to bear. This becomes especially noticeable in the transformation of Zachary Reid from romantic neophyte (and sailor) into opium trader and businessman. His romanticism is first disposed of in a neurotic affair with the onania-obsessed Mrs. Burnham; but whilst the comical descent of their private tutorials (on pseudo-scientific anti-masturbation tracts) into frantic copulation works well as a kind of satire, it still feels contrived. It does not help that Mrs. Burnham’s motives for all this are never very clearly explained; next to the lovingly-detailed portraits of other characters she (and Zachary) begin to feel a little wooden. This moment is supposed to set the stage for the final transformation of Zachary into a remorseless profit-hound in the book’s final chapters; yet it simply does not add up. This leaves the book’s ending as something of a stramash: the underlying tragedy of the Opium War remains achingly present, yet even when viewed through the millenarian eyes of Baboo Nob Kissin, its sense of diabolo ex machina is out of place with Ghosh’s hitherto attentive realism.

I also found it slightly troubling that Zachary’s racial background – unlike that of so many of the other characters – barely seems to figure. It seems as though Ghosh felt that he needed a character who would be accepted as white to meet his plans for the novel’s final scenes – and so unwittingly transformed Zachary into a white character. However, this only serves to drive home the fact that this is a novel to which white perspectives are simply irrelevant, and that the novel is vastly better for being so. The more Zachary’s character seems to break out of the prison that racism and imperialism have made for him, the less relevant his perspective seems to become to the story.

In all of this, however, Ghosh’s patient mastery of the details of his history prevails. His book succeeds – triumphs, perhaps – in spite of its intermittently flat characterization and the odd patch of sluggish prose. Yet ultimately this is like criticizing Adam Smith for bad spelling. Ghosh shows himself here as a historical novelist in the vein of Patrick O’Brien, with a superb eye for the minutiae that pull history down one path rather than another. Faced with Ghosh’s capacity to drive home the fleeting sense of the might-have-been, and the heartbreaking loss that entails, it is easy to become immersed in the vast picture that he opens up in his work.