Pilgrims’ progress

By CHRIS WANGLER  |  October 8, 2008

On the other hand, the author’s contempt for the British Empire, which bubbles under the optimistic, whimsical tone of the storytelling, leads to some oversimplification. Mr. Burnham, a wealthy merchant and the odious mouthpiece of the opium trade, enjoys being spanked with an Indian broom; the first mate on the Ibis, a foul-mouthed sadist named Mr. Crowle, comes off like a bad guy in Pirates of the Caribbean. Whereas Zachary, Deeti, and the other pilgrims seem almost incapable of a bad instinct or selfish act. Given the dramatic climax of the book, we can assume that they will be more carefully developed in the coming volumes, of which the next is set for 2010.

Even if it proves too exotic to take the Booker, Sea of Poppies is a triumph as a novel of ideas and as a rollicking adventure story. It’s also that rare bird: a historical novel top-loaded with contemporary relevance, in which the British plan to wage “the best kind of war — quick and inexpensive with the outcome never in doubt.”

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