Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Interview: Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than sixty books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series. His works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. He is also the author of many short stories, including the Legends of the Burnt Empire series (published in Lightspeed), which takes place in the same world as Upon a Burning Throne. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai.

Upon a Burning Throne is the first book of your epic Burnt Empire series. It follows the story of two young princes who are in line to rule the kingdom of Hastinaga after passing the Test of Fire. A war is vowed against Hastinaga because a cousin of the princes from an outlying kingdom passed the same test but is denied her claim. Tell us about the inspiration behind the series.

The Burnt Empire Saga began originally as an exhaustive retelling of the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit poem which is arguably the longest literary work ever written. That was almost twenty-five years ago, even before I wrote and published my Ramayana series. I soon realized that I was not ready to take on such a mammoth story and set it aside, reluctantly. Several years later, in 2004, when I was more or less done with the Ramayana series, I took it up again, and continued it. It took a hell of a lot more work and a fair amount of time, but I began releasing it in book-length installments from around 2012 onwards. By 2015, I knew that once again I had hit a roadblock. The original epic was too complex, vast, labyrinthine, and ambitious for any modern retelling. By this time, I had moved from India to the US and was determined to build a career as an author. It then dawned on me that I was attempting to do something that was totally unnecessary. Why retell an epic that was already so rich, so full of wonder and awe and great characters and plot? Instead, why not write my own original epic fantasy, stealing and borrowing liberally from the Mahabharata as well as my own multi-cultural upbringing!

By 2017, I had the bulk of what’s now Upon a Burning Throne, and the Burnt Empire saga was off and running. I have to say, though, that my editor and publisher John Joseph Adams’s input was invaluable in shaping the work it’s finally become. John has been incredible on this epic path to publication, allowing me the freedom to rewrite entire sections, insert a whole new beginning, and literally create a world from the ground up as he edited. It took two hard years of edits, rewrites, revisions, and a deep rethinking of the story ahead (which John isn’t even privy to at this point) before the book that now exists was ready to go out into the world. And boy, has it come a long way.

You’ve done a retelling of the Mahabharata with your previous book, The Forest of Stories. What drew you back to it? What attracted you to the idea of writing an epic inspired by the Mahabharata as opposed to retelling it?

While UABT still has the genetic DNA of the Mahabharata, it is most definitely not a retelling. For one thing, this book covers barely two percent of the original Sanskrit epic’s plot. The Mahabharata itself is massive: Even a word-by-word translation would take up at least six million words in English. And that would be dense, inscrutable poetry, needing another ten or twenty million words of footnotes to understand. It’s literally impossible to read and comprehend the entire Mahabharata (unabridged) completely. Even projects like the Clay Sanskrit Library translation took dozens of scholars decades of work, and even they couldn’t finish it. It’s enough work to employ an entire university for generations. All I’ve done is taken the bones of the original epic, the main characters, and main through line, and then made up my own epic fantasy universe, culture, world, etc. Besides the fact that this is more practical, it’s also way more fun! I get to play in my own universe while retaining several of the most memorable mythic characters and storylines ever written down by human hands!

In your experience of retelling the Mahabharata and writing the Burning Throne series, why do you think readers are hooked on sprawling stories about dynastic struggles and all-consuming wars? Have you noticed any patterns in readership about this when talking with your readers?

Because it’s like reading a history of the world with new characters, stories, battles, and all kinds of magical elements! It’s fun. I think one of the reasons for the rise of epic fantasy after the two world wars is because those terrible conflicts left us all with a deep sense of shame and guilt. We massacred tens of millions both times in the most wide-scale wars of human history. Epic fantasy is our way of working through those terrible wars, but through the once-removed comfortable distancing of fantasy fiction. We can project our guilt, shame, anger, grief, everything onto these fictional characters, and find a catharsis and resolution that we failed to receive from the real world wars. At least, that’s my two cents.

Were there any other sources of inspiration (literature, TV series, music) that fed the development of your series?

It’s been said of the Mahabharata (within the epic itself, which is self-aware and frequently breaks the fourth wall through a series of narrators telling the story within the story within the story ad infinitum) that “What cannot be found here will not be found anywhere else.” It’s believed to be the most complete compendium of human experience—the good, the bad, the ugly all rolled in together—and an education in itself. In some ways, it’s the mother of all stories, the ur-source of all genres, tropes, and even literary devices. Having said that, I did draw freely on other pan-Indian influences: Moghul history, Middle Eastern and Egyptian legends, even other Indian and Asian legends. And of course, there’s a lot of pure invention in the mix, too. In the end, the main characters and what they do, or why they do what they do, is still from the Mahabharata, but almost everything else is made up of whole cloth, woven on the loom of that great myth.

In a time when readers are still obsessed with A Song of Ice and Fire and audiences are salivating for the final season of Game of Thrones, what was it like pitching a large epic like this to publishers, especially an epic centered largely in South Asian mythology and not Eurocentric lore?

I never pitched it to anyone. I sent an early draft of the manuscript, then titled City of Elephants, to John Joseph Adams. He read it, liked it, and made me an offer. I signed the contract unagented and that was it. I had never been (and still haven’t been) to a genre convention, had no literary agent at the time (I do now), and couldn’t get anyone in the US to read anything by me. Until JJA. He changed everything for me. He’s the most open-minded genre publisher and editor I’ve ever encountered in my life. Definitely the most awesome SFF editor of them all right now. He saw it as what it truly was, a great epic fantasy story that was a hugely enjoyable immersive experience for anyone who loves epic fantasy. The culture, the diversity, the author, none of that really matters. The Burnt Empire is its own world, its own mythos. Read it and enjoy. (Though of course, the first book goes down some very dark paths, so perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word, except in a literary sense.)

Speaking of dark paths, there’s some striking imagery in the novel that could’ve come from a horror novel or even from John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’m thinking of the scene where Prince Shvate, his wife Mayla, and his half-brother Vida go to the mountain city of Reygar to defeat demonlord Jarsun, only to discover that the city is sentient and walks on legs made of tens of thousands of human bodies joined together with a whitish ichor. How much of this imagery was inspired by the Mahabharata and how much of it comes from your imagination?

Oh, that’s not from the Mahabharata at all. It’s completely inspired by a story in Clive Barker’s classic collection, The Books of Blood! I’ve always wanted to use it somehow, and finally found a place. Although my version is very different from Barker’s original, the idea of a city made up of people slammed together in Human Centipede fashion is somewhat similar. I confess to having paid homage to one of my favorite authors!

Fire and water are recurring images throughout the book. In the beginning, there’s the Burning Throne used to test Princes Shvate and Adri and their cousin Krushita. And there’s the River Jeel, who’s also the mother of Vrath, Prince Regent of the Burnt Empire. What significance do fire/sun and water have in the ancient Sanskrit and Indian literature that you’re working with?

Pretty much the same significance as in all ancient cultures. In this case, though, the ruling race, called the Krushan, have a very ancient connection to fire in the form of an element called Stonefire. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say that Stonefire and its counterpart, Jeel, (embodied as the Mother Goddess Jeel who is also a river in the world) form the center of the mythology I invented for the series. So it’s more my invention than anything from the original Mahabharata. There is no Burning Throne, Burnt Empire, Krushan, Stonefire, or any of these elements in Indian mythology or any other mythology. That part is just the product of my own mind and it has a direct bearing on a very apocalyptic event that happens much later in the series. That’s all I’m allowed to say now; another word, and the Stone Gods are likely to strike me down!

The characters in Upon a Burning Throne feel contemporary as much as they feel like they’re from a mythical bygone era. Was this the effect you were striving for?

Are you quite sure they feel contemporary? They all do some terrible things, you know! If they do seem contemporary, it’s certainly not contemporary American. The ancient Indian sense of morality, gender roles, caste, class, etc., is very different from the current US outlook. I doubt American characters would do any of the things these people do in the book and get away with it. If anything feels contemporary, it’s probably the fact that the author is contemporary!

Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata, makes himself a character in the epic. Did you write yourself in Upon a Burning Throne as one of characters like he did? Perhaps as seer-mage Vessa?

No way! It’s a bloody dangerous world. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere on the continent of Arthaloka (where the story is set) or in the Burnt Empire itself! No thank you. I’m happy here on the outside looking in, except for the times I teleport my avatar down to the surface and report on the violent shenanigans down there. As for Vyasa himself, yes, he is very much a part of the series too, and as you rightly guessed, he is indeed Vessa. Not a very likable character, like most of the major protagonists in the epic, but then again, he’s not the hero of the epic nor is he meant to be. That distinction is reserved for Krushni, the real hero of the series, who arrives on the scene only in Book Two, A Dark Queen Rises.

Some chapters are written from the perspective of animals, such as a crow and a vulture, that comment on a scene we’ve just read. What structural or narrative effect were you going for with these POV shifts? They really enrich the texture of the book’s mythological tenor.

That’s simple: I’m just following the story where it goes. To tell that part of the story, the only way was to use those animals’ points of view as bridges. Also, I love animals and try to work them into my work wherever possible. They are very much a part of the world too, after all. It wouldn’t be fair to leave them out!

In one chapter, Adran, Prince Adri’s charioteer, says, “Gods rarely cohabit with mortals without a purpose . . . Time and time again, as our puranas tell us, we become collateral damage in their great wars and missions.” I feel like this could be read as a major theme, because all the narrative arcs involve demigods, demons, and mortals interacting. And the mortals pay a price each time. Do you find that epics like this are fatalistic and dramatize existential angst with gods and fantastical creatures as characters? (This question may be more indicative of my Western way of reading the book.)

Not really. That isn’t really a major element of the series at all. But sure, that is something that does recur in many mythology-inspired epic fantasies. I guess it’s at the root of the genre of high fantasy itself, so it is inescapable. In this case, though, it’s really all about an internecine conflict between two sets of cousins and the two demigods who choose to side with one group or the other. The back half of the series is almost all centered on a massive Mother of all Wars, and is expected to take up about five of the nine books in the overall epic.

What’s been your approach to writing the series? As a genre writer, a mythologist, a fabulist, something completely different? I’m curious because you said in a previous interview that India didn’t really have a genre scene.

India’s genre scene is finally coming of age, I’m happy to say now. There’s a whole slew of very talented writers producing excellent genre fiction. No major epic fantasy novelists yet, unless there’s one just out of sight on the horizon (in which case, I’ll wish them happy writing!). I’ve been a lifelong SFFH fan, well over forty-five years now, since I started reading at the age of nine and am fifty-five this year. I approached this series and book as epic fantasy, pure and simple. Nothing more or less. I love the genre and am proud to be a part of it.

When can we expect the next book of the series?

A Dark Queen Rises will be published in 2020.

What other future writing projects can you tell us about?

I’m currently working on a literary novel but can’t say anything about it till I finish it and send it out. And I always have several books and stories brewing at all times. I love writing several projects at once. There are graphic novels, feature film scripts, web series, and novels in other genres, including a massive space opera that rivals the Burnt Empire series in scale and appeal.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Upon a Burning Throne?

Upon a Burning Throne goes on sale in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook on April 16, 2019 in the US, and in trade paperback on May 14 in India. Please pre-order! You can read free excerpts on my website at ashokkbanker.com!

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.