Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is the best novel I've read this year. Despite its length (the story comes in at 460+ pages; if you add the glossary at the end, it's 500+), I finished reading the book in a couple of days. So what does that tell you? It tells you that either a) I'm a fast reader or b) Ghosh's novel is one that's hard to put down. A is wrong and B is partly true.
Whenever you come to a novel that's part one of a trilogy, in this case the Ibis trilogy, you expect a certain amount of set-up. Ghosh doesn't skimp on set-up. The first two parts of the story, which total more than 300 pages, are what I'd consider set-up and it's in these first two parts where I feel Ghosh could lose a reader or two.
There's also a learning curve associated with the slang Ghosh uses throughout the novel. Eventually you do learn - it doesn't take too long - and I didn't feel I needed to look at the glossary. There's implied meaning, like spending time in a country where you don't share the first language: eventually, you pick up the rhythm of the language, and the meaning of words illuminate themselves.
And perhaps that's the best part of Ghosh's historical novel: it's successful in transporting the reader to Calcutta in the 1800s. Ghosh weaves in historical details or details that feel historically accurate in a way that is not distracting. At the same time, he doesn't pretend that there's some greater meaning to Sea of Poppies though there may be and the Booker nomination (didn't win and that doesn't matter) would suggest as much. No, Sea of Poppies is a historical melodrama that ensnares and charms you. It's a fantastic piece of writing that I'm happy has sequels forthcoming.