Upon a Burning Throne is an epic fantasy about honor, rules, politics and deeply mysterious maya (magic). This first installment in a new series by Ashok K. Banker begins with the birth of two baby boys, heirs to Hastinga, ruler of the Burnt Empire. Political strife is present from the start, as the two baby boys are put through a trial by fire (literally), while a third child, a girl from another kingdom, challenges and passes the same trial. From there, the story goes more places than can be easily summarized—Banker’s world is colorful, full of lush forests, endless deserts and wide-spanning mountain ranges. Each page is filled with vivid depictions of people, places and vistas, easily living up to the novel’s inspiration, the Mahabharata.
The story is told by multiple, steadily shifting narrators, who change every 20 pages or so. Each perspective change builds and defuses tension. Quick, breakneck perspective shifts arrive along with momentous, climactic events. And slower shifts, with multiple subchapters, can still denote a quick passage of time with years slipping by in between changes in narration. While this structure can take some adjustment, especially for readers used to the orderly, chronological storytelling of modern fiction, Banker uses it to surprise and push the reader out of their comfort zone. I grew used to and enjoyed the rhythm of book’s pacing by the end, and anticipating and preparing myself for the next narrator was an enjoyable game.
Banker takes their time to begin weaving this very long tale, clearly setting the stage for the next book, and with so many unresolved loose ends, I’ll probably have to grab a notebook to keep track of them all. Without a doubt, committing to Upon a Burning Throne is a task in itself as the book clocks in at 660 pages, and no doubt the next installment will be just as grand in scale.
It’s rare to come upon a volume of fiction that manages to set a grand ambition and meet it. While Upon a Burning Throne does not quite deliver the resolution within its pages, it does an incredible job of setting the stage for a dense series that is sure to be well worth the massive time investment.