Prince of Ayodhya, Book One of the Ramayana
(Orbit, 2003, Paperback, £7.99, 532 pages.)
Ayodhya the Unconquerable, capital city of the Aryan Kingdom of Kosala,
all is not well. Rama, eldest son of Maharaja Dasaratha is tormented
by ghastly, prophetic dreams, of Ayodhya conquered, desecrated, destroyed
by ravening hoardes of Rakshasas... The Maharaja for his part is confident
that no such event can come about. The Rakshasas were given such a thumping
in their last attempt to overwhelm the Aryan nations, some twenty years
ago, that he believes their horrific lord, Ravana of the Ten Heads,
will never dare to set foot off the hellish Isle of Lanka ever again.
Dasaratha is therefore not best pleased when the ancient sage Vishwamitra
turns up on the eve of the Holi Festival, to inform him and all his
people that they are about to be attacked by tens of millions of inhuman
monsters. He is still less pleased when Vishwamitra demands the services
of Rama in order to fend off this calamity.
Nonetheless, despite a fair amount of twisting and turning, the occasional
assassination attempt, and a bit of devious plotting within the rather
complicated royal family, Dasaratha eventually gives his permission
and Rama sets off, with his younger brother Lakshman, on his first martial
foray, to the haunted Southern Forests where the monstrous demoness
Tataka awaits with all her foul, hybrid offspring.
Now the original Ramayana was composed, in Sanskrit, some 3,000 years
ago, and is one of the central texts of Hindu culture. Though this new
version is explicitly a modernised retelling, not a translation, Banker
obviously has to cleave to the basic storyline, thus it isn't quite
fair to criticise Banker for weak or wayward plotting; he isn't after
all the master of his destiny in this sense.
It is, however, fair to criticise him for presenting Hindu culture,
with which Prince of Ayodhya is full to overflowing, very clumsily.
Much of this is paraded before the reader in 'lecture mode.' Banker
clearly makes the assumption that most of his readership will be ignorant
of the finer points of Hindu culture (fair enough, they probably are),
that they need to be informed about the subtleties, and that the best
way to do this is to explain it directly; author to reader. That's no
way to create a fast-paced, absorbing narrative.
The extent to which this goes is sometimes quite bewildering. On page
246 Banker actually takes a couple of paragraphs to explain a joke.
If the editor had been on their toes they would have suggested any one
of a number of simple short-cuts to handle that situation, and of course
to preserve the humour of the moment (if a joke needs explanation, it
The editing, in fact, is a major issue. The language is definitely
over-wordy. Again and again one hits sentences that cry out for a little
simple trimming. One also repeatedly hits irritating modernisms. Rama,
startled from sleep in his royal suite, rips through each room like
a SWAT team, his internal monologue shouting out "clear! clear!
enemy not sighted!" as he checks each chamber in turn. This sort
of thing makes it very difficult to evoke a solid sense of people living
in an ancient civilisation. The characters just don't act, or think
in a way that seems convincingly 'ancient Aryan.' An editor with some
common-sense would also have told Banker not to keep giving out quotations
in Sanskrit and then following with a translation. The simple solution
to rendering a foreign language is to write it in italics or a different
Then there are the characters. For the most part they're hard to believe
in. Banker lays out their emotions boldly, and offers them many dramatic
moments to wrestle with, but there is again too much over-elaboration.
Interestingly, perhaps the most credible character is Ravana. The demon-lord
of Lanka is a spectacularly nasty piece of work, he is at once the only
thing in the book that smacks of real, mythic, power, and the only person
whose malice seems genuine. Alas, he gets little 'screen-time' in this
The overall impression really, is of one of the great epic cycles
of World Mythology, strained through a filter till it accords with the
stock style of modern, mainstream fantasy, and rather badly edited.
One has to say, it really didn't need to be like this.
Great myths are of course, at the root of a lot of the modern fantasy
genre. And these myths themselves have frequently been the subject of
retellings and reinterpretations. One has only to think of John Gardner's
'Grendel' to see what can be done by a genuinely gifted writer. Then
there's the work Poul Anderson has done with Scandinavian myth, in 'The
Broken Sword' and 'Hrolf Krakki's Saga.' For that matter the Ramayana
itself has been used as a root theme quite recently; in a rather subtle,
oblique fashion, it formed the plot base for Michael Scott Rohan's 'Shadow
of the Seer' (published in 2001).
We can even find better evocations of Hindu culture within the science
fiction genre. Roger Zelazny's masterpiece, 'Lord of Light,' was a brilliant
depiction of a Hindu-derived society, in which the author felt little
or no need to deliberately explain the niceties of the culture he was
depicting; its intricacies were slowly revealed in the action and the
dialogue. Possibly he trusted his readers' powers of understanding more
than Banker does.
Ultimately one turns away from Banker's work in a spirit of sadness.
Didn't the Ramayana deserve better than this? I won't be reading the
rest of the series.
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