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Prince of Ayodhya: The Ramayana #1    by Ashok K. Banker order for
Prince of Ayodhya
by Ashok K. Banker
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2003)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've often thought that the Indian classics would make good epic fantasy, and now Ashok Banker has written Prince of Ayodhya, the first book in his Ramayana series. The story opens on young prince Rama Chandra's repeated nightmare of a demonic slaughter of the people of his family's fortress city of Ayodhya by invaders from Lanka, the gateway to the Underworld. He sees Asuras and Rakshasas, and a variety of other monsters butcher and devour its citizens. Their leader, ten-headed Ravana, demands his allegiance, but he refuses.

Rama has three close brothers - Kaikeyi's son Bharat, and the twins Lakshman and Shatrugan by his father's meek third wife Sumitra. Rama saves a doe while hunting, not knowing that she is a Yaksa named Supanakha, Ravana's cousin in disguise. She is intrigued by the young mortal and follows him. We also meet a witch named Manthara, who deals in human sacrifice. She's in thrall to Ravana and in control of the maharaja's second wife, the greedy Queen Kaikeyi. They are both enraged when the maharaja ends a long estrangement with his first wife (Rama's mother) Kausalya and informs her of his plans to appoint Rama as his successor.

The powerful brahmarishi, 'guru among gurus', Vishwamitra journeys to Ayodhya, disguised as a lowly hunter, and just behind the rakshas (Ravana's uncle) who has taken the form of Vishwamitra. This leads to some confusion when Rama's father, the ageing and ill Maharaja Dasaratha, greets and welcomes the seer-mage. After he is finally recognized, Vishwamitra demands from the maharaja Rama's help on a dangerous mission, and Lakshman insists on accompanying his brother. They set out to fulfill their dharma. On their heels is a contingent of the maharaja's guard, sent to protect the princes, and led by childless Captain Bejoo and his proteg9, lieutenant Bheriya.

After a brief respite and some stories at an ashram retreat where acolytes are sworn to celibate meditation, Vishwamitra endows the princes with twin maha-mantras that empower them with special abilities to fight demons, and leave them more than mortal. They then take on the task of cleansing the forest of its monstrous inhabitants, fighting of an onslaught of waves of terrifying monsters, the last but definitely not least of which is the giant Tataka. The episode has a cliffhanger ending with the maharaja dead and a vast war armada massed offshore of Lanka.

The Ramayana promises to be an exciting series - if you're intrigued by the Indian classics or enjoy fantasy well laced with horror, don't miss it.

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