Ashok K. Banker crafts an intricate and wide-ranging world in Upon a Burning Throne (2019) the first volume in the BURNT EMPIRE SAGA. This novel alone covers the span of decades, touching on the lives of dozens of characters, implementing mythology and magic and carefully-plotted battles in equal measure. Gods, warriors, mystics, kings, and even the humblest of charioteers all have their parts to play in this nearly-700-page epic loosely based upon The Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic poem that tells the story of a dynastic-succession war between two groups of cousins. Banker’s story is his own creation, however, and even with very little prior experience with the inspirational material, I enjoyed this tale and was happily inspired to fill some gaps in my cultural knowledge.
Within the kingdom of Hastinaga, two princes are born to different princesses, though they share a father, the “seer-mage” Vessa, son of Dowager Empress Jilana. The princes, Adri and Shvate, must be put to the traditional test of suitability: though mere infants, they must each be placed upon the Burning Throne, which will either consume them alive with flames or leave them unscathed as proof of their Krushan heritage. Adri, born completely blind, and Shvate, born albino, would appear to be unsuitable, but to the surprise of the court’s onlookers, each baby survives unscathed. Even more shocking is the appearance of the demonlord Jarsun, Vessa’s cousin, and Jarsun’s wife Aqreen, who have brought their daughter Krushita as a fellow aspirant to the throne; Krushita survives the Test of Fire as well, causing no end of consternation and argument over which infant truly has the right of succession.
As Upon a Burning Throne continues, readers watch Adri and Shvate grow up together, relying on one another and their powerful heritage to overcome their individual difficulties. They train as warriors, as politicians, and as leaders of men who are expected to someday rule not only Hastinaga but all the various kingdoms and lands within the Burnt Empire. Banker also familiarizes readers with the boys’ uncle, the formidable prince regent Vrath, whose mother is literally the Goddess of water; their brilliant half-brother, Vida; the dowager empress herself; Shvate’s two wives, Karni and Mayla, brilliant strategists and fearsome women by any measure; Adri’s wife Geldry, whose enthusiasm at marrying into his family quickly sours; and many, many more, both mortal and divine. Jarsun remains a significant threat throughout the novel, though his wife and his daughter disappear from this narrative after their early appearance. My expectation is that they, or Krushita at the very least, will have more of a presence as the series progresses.
Men and women are all given opportunities to shine brightly (or experience tremendous falls from grace), and even though there are times when the characters themselves acknowledge that they’re making the worst possible decisions, I admire Banker’s skill at making those decisions seem well-reasoned. Banker doesn’t shy away from inner turmoil or outward conflict, and provides readers multiple chances to view a series of events starting from a character’s inner thoughts, moving to the observations of their friends or foes, and examining the consequences sometimes years or decades later. I was often impressed by the ways in which he maintained character and plot continuity across such a lengthy span of time within a single volume. Normally, I tend to stay away from books of this length and scope because their authors don’t provide the depth of character study I prefer, but Banker exceeded my expectations in surprising and satisfying ways.
In an interview with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bank encourages readers to “jump in anywhere, literally on any page … [then] go back and read from the beginning,” and I will say that one could very easily do that, which is a refreshing and interesting approach. On the other hand, the novel sometimes felt like a collection of interconnected short stories, and the frequent repetition of expository details felt unnecessary and a little tedious as a result. It wasn’t enough to drastically change my opinion of the work as a whole, especially since a lot of those repeated details smooth out or are left out entirely as the story focuses more and more on Shvate and Adri as they navigate adulthood, but it was a minor initial annoyance.
The mountains, deserts, forests, and jungles comprising the greater world, known as Arthaloka, are convincingly portrayed and come to life in Banker’s prose. A battle which takes place in the deserts of Reygistan against a city carved into the side of a mountain was, by turns, thrilling and nauseating, and the levels to which sorcery can be used to alter a person’s perceptions and actions was exciting — not just in this instance, but throughout the course of Upon a Burning Throne. By contrast, I wish the palace at Hastinaga and the capital city itself had been described in a bit more detail, so that I could more clearly imagine where events were taking place, especially during a tremendous and gruesome battle which overtakes the entire city. But, again, that’s a small thing when compared against everything else that Banker does so well.
Upon a Burning Throne ends on a killer cliffhanger, and I’m excited to see how Banker picks up the story in the sequel, currently titled A Dark Queen Rises and scheduled for release in Spring 2020. It’s going to be a long wait until then!