I don’t know exactly why Prince of Ayodhya failed to satisfy me. Ashok K. Banker has achieved a modern retelling of the Hindu mythic cycle, the Ramayana. I’m a sucker for mythology. Banker is a competent writer and some of his descriptions are beautiful. He clearly knows his source material and wants to share it with a wider audience.
The Ramayana follows the adventures of Prince Rama Chandra, his wife Sita, brother Lakshman and Hanuman the Monkey King as they battle against the powerful arch-demon Ravana. In the original, the Maharaja Dasaratha is set to declare Rama, his oldest son, the crown prince, when instead he sends Rama on a quest. Ravana manages to abduct Sita, and Rama and Hanuman must attack the demon fortress to free her. In the meantime, the Maharaja makes Bharat, Rama’s younger half-brother, heir to the throne.
Prince of Ayodhya does not take us very far into that classic story, though. In the opening chapters, Ravana taunts Rama in a dream, warning him, and us, that the kingdom’s time of peace and prosperity is in jeopardy. Rama sees the destruction of the city of Ayodhya the Unconquered. Immediately, though, the book becomes episodic. Against the backdrop of the holiday of Holi, Rama goes for a walk in the woods. He eats a mango. He saves a doe from poachers. He has breakfast with his mother, visits with his three half-brothers and stops a riot. None of this is exactly boring, but it fails to build dramatic momentum. He agrees to go on a spiritual quest at the instigation of an immortal seer who has come to the city. We also discover that Ravana has already infiltrated the city and has worshippers everywhere, even in the heart of the palace.
Rama agrees to go with Vishwamrita, the warrior-seer, and his half-brother Lakshman accompanies him. Since Rama is already brighter-faster-stronger than anyone, Lakshman is Jimmy Olsen to his Superman, the one who can get hurt or killed to show how serious this all is.
I think this book suffered from my expectations. For me, this story has always been about Rama, Sita and Hanuman. We haven’t met Sita yet, and Hanuman isn’t even mentioned. Banker spent a lot of time on setup. It isn’t until page 314 of a 374 page book that we get a rousing battle scene with the giant demon Tataka, one of Ravana’s relatives.
Prince of Ayodhya does a better-than-adequate job of introducing the Ramayana’s many players. A minor character, Supanahka, a demon sent to follow Rama, is quite charming when she isn’t slashing humans into bloody chunks. Lakshman is on his way to being a good character. Probably the best character in the book is the leader of a troop of royal guards sent to follow Rama. He is brave, loyal, experienced, but has great unhappiness in his life for reasons we can all understand.
On the other hand, Rama is wooden, the Maharaja is weak, and Kaikeyi, Dasaratha’s second queen, though her actions drive plot, is unconvincing: a jealous harridan one moment, drunken trollop the next and childish dupe of her evil handmaiden the moment after that. It’s hard to come up with motivations for 3,000-year-old characters that are basically archtypes. Banker can’t quite manage it. He also can’t stop himself from killing the suspense. The tension in the middle of the book is so slack that you could use it for a jump-rope. Even at the end, the people back at the palace have already figured out who the spy is, ruining any excitement that revelation might have caused at a later time.
To some extent Banker also seems to confuse action with conflict. His action sequences are good, but the only relationship with genuine conflict is the love triangle between the Maharaja and his two queens, which doesn’t matter a bit to this story.
Banker wants to make this material accessible, and there are many readers who enjoy gorgeous descriptions and superhuman characters with no flaws or complexities. Those readers will enjoy Prince of Ayodhya. It’s just not the book for me. In the second book, The Siege of Mithila, we should get to meet Sita. I don’t know if that is enticement enough to make me read it.