TITLE: Upon A Burning Throne (The Burnt Empire Saga, Book One)
AUTHOR: Ashok K. Banker
669 pages, John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 9781328916280 (Hardcover and e-book)
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): From international sensation Ashok K. Banker, pioneer of the fantasy genre in India, comes the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata.
In a world where demigods and demons walk among mortals, the Emperor of the vast Burnt Empire has died, leaving a turbulent realm without an emperor. Two young princes, Adri and Shvate, are in line to rule, but birthright does not guarantee inheritance: For any successor must sit upon the legendary Burning Throne and pass The Test of Fire. Imbued with dark sorceries, the throne is a crucible—one that incinerates the unworthy.
Adri and Shvate pass The Test and are declared heirs to the empire… but there is another with a claim to power, another who also survives: a girl from an outlying kingdom. When this girl, whose father is the powerful demonlord Jarsun, is denied her claim by the interim leaders, Jarsun declares war, vowing to tear the Burnt Empire apart—leaving the young princes Adri and Shvate to rule a shattered realm embroiled in rebellion and chaos....
MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: I mostly burned out on “epics” of all genres about a decade ago, give or take. Books topping out over 600 pages (many significantly over) just stopped appealing to me. The most “recent” book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series sits unread alongside a good number of Stephen King’s recent novels and countless others I bought with every good intention. Then in 2015 Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, the first novel in his Dandelion Dynasty series, came along, and I realized that maybe the issue was less the size of the books and more the content – the idea that no matter how good the writing or beloved the author (and believe me, I love Stephen King’s work), I got tired of reading the same types of epics. This idea was cemented by my great enjoyment of Dylan Struzan’s A Bloody Business (a Prohibition tale writ as sweeping, operatic epic if ever there was one) and now of Ashok K. Banker’s Upon A Burning Throne.
I was prepared to like Upon A Burning Throne because of how much I enjoyed Banker’s “Legends of the Burnt Empire” short stories (novelettes?) in recent issues of Lightspeed Magazine. While you can read this novel without reading those stories, they do provide a lot of the world-building backbone. Past events hinted at in the novel are given full detail in the stories, which build with a growing sense of inevitability to the event that directly precedes the opening scene of the novel: the birth of the princes Adri and Shvate.
If there’s one thing the Liu and Banker books have in common, it’s that their structural (if not narrative) basis is in epic poetry of the distant past as opposed to the epic fantasy tropes of more recent times. There’s little, if any, trace of Tolkien here, but plenty of moments that put me in mind of The Iliad (which I have read) and what I’ve heard of the Mahabharata (which I haven’t read). Gods and demi-gods abound in Liu and Banker’s books, directly and indirectly affecting key moments in human history, but there’s nary an orc or dragon to be found. Which to me is just damned refreshing.
The book is sweeping in time-span (covering more than 20 years of character time), in location (cities and sub-nations across the Krushan Empire and their warring neighbor Reygistan) and in cast (by my count 14 major/important characters, almost as many secondary characters who momentarily get the spotlight, and a score of gods and goddesses). Epic is not an overstatement or a cliché here.
Like many ancient epic poems, Banker does not always reveal events in chronological order, sometimes breaking off mid-battle or mid-political-intrigue to introduce a new character and give their backstory only when they become important to the narrative. In lesser hands, this could make the story disjointed or make it feel disorganized. Banker handles it with a deft ease that belies how hard this kind of storytelling actually is, and the shifts in point-of-view actually heighten, rather than confuse or diminish, the reader’s interest. Every time the story took a seemingly disconnected jump to a new character or new place, I found myself eagerly asking how this was going to tie back to the main story. And it always did. It all does. There’s not a wasted scene. And while Banker may be laying the seeds of future volumes throughout this one, not a single seeming digression fails to loop back to the main narrative before the book’s final pages.
Okay, that’s not completely true. There is one character introduced in a major way in the prologue who I thought would be an important presence throughout this book but who disappears almost immediately. Even once I recognized the absence in scenes the character surely should have been present for, it didn’t bother me; something has to held back for Book Two (currently due in the spring of 2020) after all.
Although there are, as I mentioned, over a dozen main characters to contend with, the real focus is on the Princes Adri and Shvate – one blind, the other albino – and their struggles to prove they are capable of leading the vast Krushan Empire (note: not whether they are worthy – that issue is settled in the prologue – but whether they are capable; two very different concerns). If there is any similarity to the high/Euro-centric fantasy of Tolkien and Martin, it is in this. The Princes are viewed as “disabled” and thus, like Tolkien’s Hobbits, not seen as capable of accomplishing the task set before them. Other strive to convince them they should hand the task over to someone(s) more “normally-abled.” Like Frodo and Sam, Adri and Shvate have moments where their so-called disadvantages are what saves the day, moments where they fail, and moments where they are buoyed by loved ones or boon companions. Like Martin’s Stark siblings, the Princes are good men buffeted by the political machinations of less-good to downright-evil people. Also like Martin’s characters and like the protagonists of so many ancient epics, the Princes and their closest allies are good but not perfect. They make mistakes; are lustful and insecure and bold by turn; they are sometimes incisive and sometimes oblivious. In short, they are real people rather than archetypes. I can’t think of a single character, other than perhaps the “big bad” Jarsun, who fails to reveal complexity as the action progresses.
Up until now, I’ve only read some of Banker’s short stories (not all of them connected to this book) and enjoyed them all. Upon A Burning Throne has inspired me to seek out more of Banker’s novels. Yes, even if they’re more than 600 pages long!