Step Two on a mythic journey well worth taking
The Siege of Mithila is the second volume in Ashok Banker’s retelling of The Ramayana, following on from Prince of Ayodhya. At first glance, this series would seem to have everything that non-genre critics condemn as the hackeneyed, overwrought and implausible in fantasy. There are gods and elemental evils, noble kings and heroic princes, beautiful princesses and wise sages who have lived for millennia. Well, yes, there are, and it is fascinating to see how Ashok Banker avoids slipping into cliché as he presents a mythic, grandiloquent tale which is at the same time admirably accessible.
It certainly helps that while The Ramayana is one of the world’s great myth cycles, it is far less well known to western readers than so much of the euro-centric material repeatedly picked over by fantasy writers. This gives this series a welcome freshness and exoticism while what we know of Indian culture and myth balances us with a sense of connection to the story. In the same way, while the major, mythic figures are pretty much superheroes, there is a cast of extremely well realised secondary characters without any such advantages.
The hero-princes’ mothers, Sumitra and Kausalya, face very real perils and puzzles with fears and uncertainty that we ordinary mortals can wholly identify with. The footsoldiers in the cosmic battle against evil are led by the likes of Bejoo, honest and loyal and facing incomprehensible magic with hardwon courage. Similarly, while Ravana, demon lord of Lanka, the ancient evil that threatens death and destruction for all is a supernatural colossus, his servants such as the grotesque witch Manthara display entirely convincing and human evil in their motives and atrocities. The world they live in, its palaces and jungles, the food and rituals, the heat and dust are similarly lucidly conveyed.
But there are still the superheroes, the prince Rama and his brother Lakshman and their wise guide, the guru Vishwamitra. Brahmin magic has conferred something close to invulnerability on them. This could so easily be the point where the suspension of disbelief snaps. How can we identify with characters so far beyond our understanding? Where’s the danger that could possibly threaten them?
Firstly, these superheroes are also well-realised characters, accessible through their jokes and brotherly banter as well as in the bonds of affection that tie them to their family and their sense of duty, because as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. And even super-gurus can crack a joke now and then. While their extraordinary abilities are not glossed over, neither are the practical problems and occasional resentments such powers prompt in lesser mortals. As for the dangers, even superheroes cannot be everywhere at once and while they have their eyes fixed firmly on the florid evil of Ravana, trying to fathom his deadly plans, treachery by his minions behind them could undermine all they are fighting for. It is down to the humble likes of Sumitra to try to save the day back in Ayodhya.
Besides, superpowers turn out not to be all they might seem. Firstly, Sita, who manages to be a believably independent and fiery fantasy heroine as well as a mythic princess, reckons they don’t impress her much. Secondly, if superpowers offer the ultimate weapon, our hero still has to decide where and when to use it, and how to deal with the potentially disastrous consequences.
So, as in the first volume of this series, the Siege of Mithila offers a swashbuckling heroic page-turner which is at the same time a well-written exploration of human courage and failings, hopes and fears for those of us fantasy fans who like such literary values along with our unrepentant adventure. Roll on the Demons of Chitrakut!
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.