It is 1839 and tension has been rapidly mounting between China and British India following the crackdown on opium smuggling by Beijing. With no resolution in sight, the colonial government declares war. One of the vessels requisitioned for the attack, the Hind, travels eastwards from Bengal to China, sailing into the midst of the First Opium War. The turbulent voyage brings together a diverse group of travellers, each with their own agenda to pursue. Among them is Kesri Singh, a sepoy in the East India Company who leads a company of Indian sepoys; Zachary Reid, an impoverished young sailor searching for his lost love, and Shireen Modi, a determined widow en route to China to reclaim her opium-trader husband’s wealth and reputation. Flood of Fire follows a varied cast of characters from India to China, through the outbreak of the First Opium War and China’s devastating defeat, to Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. Flood of Fire is a thrillingly realised and richly populated novel, imbued with a wealth of historical detail, suffused with the magic of place and plotted with verve. It is a beautiful novel in its own right, and a compelling conclusion to an epic and sweeping story – it is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Ghosh's final novel in his Ibis trilogy (after 2008's Sea of Poppies and 2011's River of Smoke) is set during the First Opium War in China, from 1839 to 1841. Ghosh's cast of characters is lengthy, and many change identities; relationships and events begun in the first two books are referred to frequently here. Sorting out who is who can be confusing, especially if the reader is not familiar with the other two novels. Still, Ghosh's firm grasp of the British empire's war with China over opium imports is colorful and insightful, and ultimately a powerful indictment of European imperial arrogance, using force to secure economic concessions from a Chinese dynasty. Havildar Kesri Singh is an Indian sepoy (soldier) in the East India Company Army, sent to China with his officer, Captain Neville Mee, as part of the British campaign to force the Chinese to pay reparations, allow opium imports, open free trade ports, and cede Hong Kong. An immoral American sailor, Zachary Reid, sees riches in the opium trade, partnering with a rich businessman while bedding his wife, later blackmailing her, destroying her marriage, and causing untold grief to others. Woven throughout are historical depictions of British imperialism and duplicity, the Indian caste system, the tragic suffering and the tremendous profits in war, European-Asian enmity, and grim portrayals of vicious naval and land battles in which cannon and bayonets inflict slaughter. This is an excellent history of the First Opium War, and a fitting capstone to Ghosh's trilogy.