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The Prince of Ayodhya: The Ramayana Book 1
Ashok K. Banker
Warner Aspect, 389 pages

The Prince of Ayodhya
Ashok K. Banker
Ashok K. Banker is the author of several novels published in India. The Prince of Ayodhya marks his U.S. debut. He has already completed the next book in The Ramayana, Siege of Mithila. He lives with his wife and two children in Bombay, India.

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A review by William Thompson

One has to admire the ambition -- one might say hubris -- of Indian author Ashok K. Banker. A well-known and respected writer in his native country, noted, according to the publisher's promotional flyer, for authoring the first Indian crime novel in English, as well as the first Indian television series in the same language, Banker intends in this opening novel to a forthcoming trilogy to recreate and retell the Ramayana of Valmiki which, along with Mahabhrata, are the two greatest works of epic Vedic mythic literature, on par with the Homeric epics, Plato and the Christian gospels, and predating all three. Nor is this the limit of his aspiration, as he intends to follows this effort with rewrites of the aforementioned Mahabhrata, as well as the tales of Krishna and Ganesha. If successful, he will advance the knowledge and reading of these great works of Aryan and Asian literature into the mainstream of Western popular culture; a feat worthy of any author's ambition indeed!

In this opening to the trilogy -- to be followed by Siege of Mithila (already published in England by Orbit) and Demons of Chitrakut -- Banker admirably adheres to the premise of the original text, reconstructing the story of Prince Rama and the spiritual and martial tests of his youth. In doing so, the author captures a mythology refreshingly different and distinct from the usual Western fare of dragons and faerie, sure to titillate the by-now-jaded fantasy reader. Additionally, he eschews complete translation, adding a cultural element through language that at least one other critic (Carolyn Cushman, Locus, October, 2003) found distracting, but which I found in large part understandable within context, and justifiable in terms of cultural identity; for those who are anal or too obtuse to extrapolate meaning, a glossary is provided. Banker's loyalty to the spirit and cultural identity of the original text and mythos is obvious and to be applauded.

However, this becomes the novel's main deficit. In adhering too strictly to the original text, Cushman is correct in recognizing that Rama is cast in out-sized terms, a characterization that accurately reflects its source material, but which, within the medium of contemporary fantasy, seems overblown and contrived, right out of the worst excesses of an earlier Hollywood conception of Tarzan or the exotic embellishment of Scheherazade:

" Soft rustle of the silken gold-embroidered loincloth around his tight abs. Naked feline grace. Taut young muscles, supple limbs, senses instantly attuned to the slightest hint of threat."
Such characterization may suffice for a Harlequin romance, but I would like to hope that the current fantasy audience is more sophisticated.

And the level of magic being employed throughout the novel is equally over-scaled. This in and of itself is not objectionable, were it not echoed elsewhere in characterization and the recounting of events; after all, the author is trying to be loyal to the spirit of the original text. But in doing so, he has proven too slavishly faithful to his source, mimicking rather than expanding upon or truly recreating a tale, let alone presenting it in a manner palatable to a modern audience, one cognizant of over two thousand years of changes, if not improvement, in storytelling. The end result is a story that fails to convince, that distances itself from the reader in its overwrought size, and that seems more contrivance than a natural flow of events. Those who have grown satiated with fantasies set within a pseudo-medieval realm may be titillated by exotic elements within this fiction, but in terms of narrative, it fails to convince.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His criticism has also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses degrees in studio art and creative writing, as well as library science and special collections. He serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction, and has worked with noted scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall at the Cushing Library on the Michael Moorcock Life Collection. He is currently a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl, Richard Bleiler, and John Clute, et al.

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