Saga – not a word I use very often. The dictionary defines it as “a form of the novel in which the members or generations of a family or social group are chronicled in a long and leisurely narrative”. Originally they were Icelandic tales of heroic deeds and Viking voyages. Modern examples would include The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, maybe even Jean Auel's Earth's Children Series.
Sea of Poppies is the first book of Amitav Ghosh's three book saga set in nineteenth century India in 1838, just prior to the Opium Wars. In the first two sections, “Land” and “River”, Ghosh assembles a cast of characters from all strata of society and threads their stories together so that in the third part, “Sea”, all are aboard, either as crew or passengers, the former slave ship Ibis as it leaves Calcutta to deliver coolies (indentured servants) to British plantations on Mauritius.
Ghosh wraps a lot into one book. It's an historical novel, with detailed descriptions of opium processing and trade, a Dickensian tale with a cast of quirky characters, a romantic drama painted on a broad canvas, and has a lexicon all its own. On every page there were at least five words I didn't know, either because they were part of the local patois or of the vocabulary of nineteenth century sailing ships. What's a zemindary, a bandobast. a budgerow, a lascar? But somehow the meanings become clear as you keep reading, and you are swept along with the characters as they hurtle towards their destinies.
And here I must confess that, in my ongoing efforts to read as little as possible about a book before I read the book itself, I had not learned that this book was the first of a trilogy. So as the pages turned and the end neared, I couldn't figure out how Ghosh was going to resolve all the story lines. I had just about concluded that on the last page the ship would sink and all on board would perish when I finally read the back cover blurb - “the first of an epic trilogy”. And by the time I reached that last page, I would gladly have picked up book two immediately if it were available.