I’m in this place right now where there are so many good books to choose from that my bed is basically a large nest of books. I changed my sheets on Monday evening, and when I went to bed that night, I realized I’d accidentally trapped one of the books underneath the bottom sheet when I put it on the bed. Were this not the case, I’d have finished Sea of Poppies a good while ago, but there have been many bookish distractions*, and besides, I wanted to make it last.
Eva recently gave Sea of Poppies a glowing review, and since she’s just finished reading (and loving) (of course) (cause it’s very lovable) one of my favorite ever books, I am happy to report that I loved Sea of Poppies. I broke the summer reading rule I made for myself, which was not to read anything while I’m here that I can get when I’m at home. I broke it for Sea of Poppies, and I’m breaking it for the Odyssey as translated by Fagles, on whom I have an epic crush (get it? get it?). Can’t help it. Love boat stories.
Sea of Poppies is the first of three planned books about the Ibis, a ship that sails between India and the Mauritius Island, in the 1830s (just before the Opium Wars, about which I expect to hear much more in successive books). The book deals with a wide and diverse cast of characters, from a pale-skinned son of an American freedwoman, to the widow of a high-caste opium addict, to a French orphan more comfortable with Indian culture than European, to a former Raja now stripped of his lands and title on a trumped-up charge of forgery – and how their fortunes become entangled with each other and with the Ibis.
My favorite thing about Sea of Poppies is the way it portrays class as both immutable and unbelievably fragile. Nearly all of our central characters are transgressors of boundaries, whether by their own choice or by the vagaries of fate. Racial and class distinctions are hugely important to both the Indian and European characters; the dangers faced by (and, to many of the other characters in the story, posed by) our point-of-view characters exist because they do not, or will not, fit the mold. For instance, Zachary is of mixed race, a fact unknown to everyone around him; he dresses like a gentleman and is treated like a gentleman. As a French girl and the ward of a British merchant, Pauline belongs to the “ruling class”; but she was raised by an Indian woman and feels far more comfortable amongst Indians. The interplay between all these characters, and the different places they occupy within society and on the Ibis, makes for fascinating reading.
Which leads to me to my one small complaint. Sea of Poppies, while enthralling because the characters are great and I love all the small, complex dramas that play out along class and racial and gender boundaries for each character, feels very much like the first part of a longer work (which it is, of course). I kept waiting and waiting to see the characters come together and see how they would interact with each other; and when that did happen (about two-thirds of the way through, and in a rather limited way), it was most satisfying. But I wanted more. More! I loved seeing Deeti and Pauline become friends, and Zachary and Jodu a little bit, but I wanted all the characters to be in one spot at one time.
I love to discover new authors, but when I discover them before they have finished writing a series, I am sad to have to wait. This month I have gone from not minding when Megan Whalen Turner’s or Amitav Ghosh’s next book will come out, to minding enormously and with much impatient anticipation. Deeti and Neel are going to be besties (I believe in my heart). Some fool’s going to bring an elephant to awe Gen, and Gen is going to want to steal it (says Megan Whalen Turner). How good will that be?
What other folks thought:
A Striped Armchair
Farm Lane Books Blog
Kiss a Cloud
S. Krishna’s Books
The Boston Bibliophile
A Progressive on the Prairie
Reviews by Lola
So Many Books
The Reading Life
Evening All Afternoon
Tell me if I missed yours!
*Including, oh my God, Monsters of Men. I can’t even tell you how hard I loved that book. I cannot stop thinking about it. I am craving a reread of the whole series now, though I have almost definitely decided to delay gratification until I get home. If you have not read the Chaos Walking series, you should get started on that right now, because after I have let my Mumsy read it, I’m going to do a giveaway of my ARC. I want to spread the joy. There is this one thing that happens in Monsters of Men that is so joyous and the scene is so perfect that I start grinning like an idiot every time I think about it. And then I go reread that scene. I reread it again just now. It was still perfect.
Edit to add: I finally nailed down what it was that kept running vaguely in and out of my head while I was reading this book! It’s that Monty Python sketch about “I say, old man, I’m afraid we don’t understand your banter” – y’all remember that one??