Having already written his interpretation of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, fantasy writer Ashok K. Banker is now putting his own unique spin on it with The Burnt Empire Saga. In the following email interview, Banker talks about Upon A Burning Throne (hardcover, Kindle), the first book in this epic fantasy series.
I want to start with a little background. Upon A Burning Throne is inspired by an ancient Sanskrit epic tale called Mahabharata. But it’s not a retelling of that epic, which is what you did in your Mahabharataseries. So then, what is Upon A Burning Throne about, and how does it relate to both the original Mahabharata and your Mahabharata series, if at all?
My Mahabharata series was a straightforward retelling of the Sanskrit epic, staying close to the original text, dramatizing imaginatively where needed. My Burnt Empire Saga, on the other hand, is an original epic fantasy series inspired by the Mahabharataseries. Upon A Burning Throne, and the rest of the Burnt Empire Saga, draws characters, plots, and inspiration freely from the Mahabharata, but uses them to tell a new, original story. It’s epic fantasy! You can read it without knowing anything about the Mahabharata or India. It’s just a fun, immersive epic adventure set in a secondary fantasy world.
One simple clue is the map at the front of the book which shows the world of Arthaloka, a gigantic super-continent similar to Earth’s Pangea which is basically the entire world and roughly five times the size of all our continents, or Pangea, combined. So right off the bat, it’s a different world. We are definitely not in India, even though there are echoes of a quasi-ancient-Indian civilization in the Ashcrit language and culture at the heart of the first book. In later books, starting with A Dark Queen Rises, it goes way further off-field, depicting a civilization and culture that can only be traced back to India if you squint very hard and force yourself to find similarities. By that second book, the story and characters also deviate very dramatically from the original Mahabharata and beyond that, it’s a whole other ballgame.
So did you get the idea for The Burnt Empire, and thus Upon A Burning Throne, while you were working on one of your Mahabharata novels?
I’ve been trying to find a way to write an epic fantasy based on or inspired by the Mahabharata for almost twenty-five years, maybe even all my life. It’s the ultimate epic saga, the longest in the world, and probably the most comprehensive. There’s a saying in Sanskrit that translates as “Within this book lies the world.” It’s true. There is almost no story trope, character archetype, plot twist, genre device, or literary device that is not in the original Mahabharata. Who wouldn’t want to dig into all that great material! But I wanted to find a way to be true to my Indian culture, to make the final work something that enhanced the original epic and made it relatable to readers everywhere. Most Indian retellings of the Mahabharata are either pretty straightforward adaptations or reactionary statements; I didn’t want to do either. It took me a while, but I hope I finally cracked it with Upon A Burning Throne. I guess you and other non-Indian readers will be the best judge of that.
You said The Burnt Empire is inspired by Mahabharata, but the other books in The Burnt Empire are not. So then are A Dark Queen Rises and the other books based on a different Indian epic tale?
The entire Burnt Empire Saga takes inspiration from the Mahabharata. But ultimately it’s far more a product of my own imagination. The Mahabharata remains the roadmap, but The Burnt Empire Saga takes its own route and the journey is the reward.
Now, aside from Mahabharata, are there any other writers or other stories that were a big influence on Upon A Burning Throne?
I guess my writing style in the book is something that has developed organically over seventy novels, and a lot of other written and published work. Like anyone else, I was inspired and influenced by every writer I read, and there were definitely times when I was trying to emulate one or the other. But the thing I discovered about myself very early on was that I just couldn’t do it. If you give me a passage and I sit down and try to copy it verbatim, I end up with something that only faintly resembles the original piece. That’s because I can’t help doing my own thing at every point.
I’d offer jazz as an example. Though, ironically, jazz is not particularly my favorite music; that would be American folk rock, but it works as an analogy here. You can write a piece of sheet music, but when I play it, I will take it where it goes and that will change depending on when I play it. Everytime it will come out sounding different. I never play it as it lays. So for instance, if I rewrote Upon A Burning Throne today, it would be a completely different book. And I could do that over and over ad infinitum, and you would never get the same book twice. That’s just how my mind works. Don’t ask me why, it just does.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on Upon A Burning Throne?
Nope. No specific work. But I will say that I write all my books like they were movies made on an unlimited budget with zero limitations and restrictions. The only given is that they have to be hugely entertaining, action-packed, and at their core, be about real people, emotions, and relationships, played out against a vast epic canvas. The rest I just make up as I go along, and it usually turns out — I’m told — unlike anything else that’s in the media.
If anything, I am not a fan of fantasy movies and TV shows, [and] I don’t play video games at all, too addictive. I prefer literary fiction, non-fiction, crime, romance, and in movies and TV shows, I prefer content that is realistic and doesn’t use VFX or CGI. The only exceptions are comic books and graphic novels, and horror. I love horror and that sometimes shows in my work, even though I’m not aware of it — it’s what I see later when I read the work for the first time and realize what happened there. “Oh, that reminds me of…” I’ll go. But at the time, I have no awareness of how or what is flowing from my keyboard. I just tell the story and it goes where it goes.
Now in terms of The Burnt Empire series, what can you tell us about your plans for it?
The Burnt Empire Saga will be three trilogies all telling one enormous story: the biggest epic fantasy war saga ever attempted. The first three books areUpon A Burning Throne, A Dark Queen Rises, and The Blind King’s Wrath.
As you know, some people wait until every book in a series is out before reading any of them, and some of those people read all three or five or whatever books in a row. But is there any reason why you think they should read Upon A Burning Throne now and not wait for the other books? Or that they should?
You can jump in anywhere, literally on any page or any book in the saga, and still enjoy yourself. In fact, I recommend doing just that. Don’t bother with starting at Book 1, Page 1, just jump in. It’s a big pool and the water’s fine. Once you’re into the story and characters and enjoying yourself, go back and read from the beginning. Over the past thirty years I’ve been writing, the one thing readers say about my work consistently is that they can reread it anytime and still find new things with every read. No matter how closely you read it the first time, you can always go back and start at the beginning and it will still be readable. It’s never about knowing how it turns out, it’s always about how we get there and the stuff that happens along the way and the things people do and say and how they act or don’t act. I’ve had people tell me they read my entire Ramayana Series in reverse order (starting with Book 8, then 7, then 6 and so on) and enjoyed it, then went back and reread it from Book 1 onwards and enjoyed it even more. You can read any page, chapter, book, in a series and then go back later and reread it in context and I’m told you will enjoy it just as much, possibly even more each time. This is true of all my books. Again, don’t ask me how or why I do it. I don’t. I just write!
So to answer your question, the only reason to buy Upon A Burning Throne now is to get a fun, action-packed fantasy to read now. The same goes for all the books in The Burnt Empire Saga, don’t bother to wait, don’t go back to Book 1 — unless you want to — just pick it up and read and have a blast.
Now, my understanding is that your Mahabharata series is being adapted into a pair of movies. I assume it’s the previous Mahabharata retelling, not The Burnt Empire, right?
Yes, that’s the straightforward Mahabharata retelling, not a fictional version, and it’s being made primarily for Indian audiences. It’s in Hindi. It’s very, very different from The Burnt Empire Saga. One is like the movie Troy, the other is like Game Of Thrones, to give a very, very simplistic comparison.
Cool. So has there been any interest in adapting The Burnt Empire and Upon A Burning Throne into a movie? Or maybe a TV series?
A lot of interest. But I’m not interested in simply selling the rights in this case. I have a very strong vision for how The Burnt Empire Saga can be adapted to a big-budget TV or streaming series for U.S. and international viewers — including but not limited to India — and want to be onboard from day one. There’s always ongoing talks and inquiries about it, but nothing is real until it’s on film, so let’s wait and see.
Finally, as we talked about already, A Burning Throne is not your first novel. But do you think it’s indicative of your style as a writer, and thus would serve as good introduction to your work? Like, if someone hasn’t read any of your books, do you think it would be a good place to start?
Start with Upon A Burning Throne because that’s my first and only book published in the US. It’s also my biggest, most ambitious, and best work to date. Why think small when you can go for the biggest and best at the same price? If you like Upon A Burning Throne and want to fill in the time till my next U.S. publication comes out, then check out the Ramayana Series starting with Prince Of Ayodhya. It’s available on Amazon Kindle in the U.S. and worldwide, and in print in India.