Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
This one disappointed me somewhat at the end. It seemed just to end and I was definitely not ready to leave the characters: an orphaned French girl, Paulette, who'd lived her entire life in India and who, to escape her conventional British benefactor, was determined to emulate a female relative who'd passed herself off as a man and another woman, Deeti, whose addicted husband died and whose poppy crop was forfeit to wealthy landlords and money lenders--one of the victims of China's attempt to stop the opium trade. There was also Zachary Reid, who'd sailed on the IBIS from Baltimore as a ship's carpenter and ended up an officer. He was the son of a quadroon mother and a father who made sure he was free--this was the 1830s--but who's taken in India not only for a white man but a wealthy, land-owning one as well. Then there's the Raja whose extravagant ways resulted in his disgrace and imprisonment--not at all fairly though lawfully by Paulette's benefactor, Burnham who owns the IBIS as well as the finest plantation in the area, Bethel (he's a proselytizing Christian as well as ruthless businessman).
Initially, the book reminded me of Dickens--slightly memorable but somewhat improbable characters and extraordinary coincidence all in the service of social criticism. Though the "social criticism" isn't like Dickens in that Ghosh's novel is historical and if it's social criticism, it's designed to remind us of "drug wars" of the past, of China trying to stop the opium trade and ruining those in India who'd been persuaded to grown poppies instead of vegetables, and of the Opium Wars that resulted when Britain used force to sustain their export of opium to China from India--against Chinese law.
The orphaned French girl, the bankrupted Bengali farm woman, the mulatto American sailor, the disgraced Raja end up together on the IBIS which, because of the slack in the opium trade, has been refitted to move coolies (all but slaves) to Mauritius--along with a number of other colorful characters.
I didn't like this one as well as The Hungry Tide. Ghosh is skillful at handling the many characters and plot lines that converge, but Sea of Poppies doesn't bring it all together quite as skillfully. I think, also, that I expected the novel to go in the other direction--literally east toward China and the opium wars, not west toward Mauritius. I expected more of an expose of the opium trade that lead to 19th century drug wars--perhaps because of the title. Perhaps because one cannot help but consider today's "opium wars".