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Prince of Ayodhya, Book One of the Ramayana

by Ashok K Banker

(Orbit, 2003, Paperback, £7.99, 532 pages.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanIn 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 isn't funny).

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 font.

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 volume.

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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