Author Interview: Ashok K. Banker

Today I am interviewing Ashok K. Banker, author of the new fantasy novel, Upon a Burning Throne, first book in the Burnt Empire Saga.

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DJ: Hi Ashok! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!

For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Ashok: Hi DJ! Thanks so much for having me! Happy to be here. I’m an Indian author best known for my English-language retellings of Indian mythological epics and historical legends. I’ve also been credited as having “pioneered” or “launched” the Indian genres of crime fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and genre fiction in general, in the English-language. I created and wrote India’s first television series in English, and co-wrote Malaysia’s first television series in English. Upon a Burning Throne is my 70th published book to date, and my first book published in the United States.

DJ: What is Upon a Burning Throne about?

Ashok: Upon a Burning Throne is a story about a great empire that dominates the world of Arthaloka, and the three legitimate aspirants that lay claim to the succession. The one that should be crowned is a young girl-child named Krushita, daughter of a powerful demi-god named Jarsun. But though she passes the test of fire – which requires placing the baby upon the Burning Throne and letting the throne itself test her with supernatural fire – the elders reject her claim and place her two half-brothers on the throne instead. This infuriates Jarsun, who is already an outcast from the family, and he declares war against the Burnt Empire. The resulting conflict takes up most of the book, with numerous battles, sorcerous attacks and confrontations, culminating in a shocking twist.

DJ: What were some of your influences Upon a Burning Throne and the series?

Ashok: Upon a Burning Throne is an epic fantasy inspired by the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata. But having said that, let me clarify that it’s not a retelling of the events in that Sanskrit epic. It’s an original work of fantasy that takes inspiration from the myth but creates its own world, characters and culture. It’s nothing like ancient India in many significant ways, and very far removed from present-day America! In short, it’s an original world in which some characters and events appear to resemble the events and characters of the Mahabharata but as you read on, you will soon realise that this is most definitely not the Mahabharata or ancient India, and, Toto, we ain’t in Kansas and we never were in Kansas! If you know the Mahabharata – which is doubtful because there isn’t any unabridged edition of the Mahabharata translated into English – but let’s say you think you know it, well, you’ll be very confused or even surprised, so quite honestly, it’s best read without knowing anything about the source material, just as an original epic fantasy. (There are several teams of scholars that attempted an unabridged translation but all those versions were abandoned unfinished because of the enormous resources required, and those versions that you may read online or the abridged summaries are really not accurate for the most part, so trust me, unless Sanskrit was your mother tongue and you’ve spent your whole lifetime studying the complex nuances of every verse of the millions that make up that labyrinth of inscrutability, you don’t know it. Perhaps nobody truly knows it.) Other influences were Moghul history, and even elements of Egyptian and Asian mythology. But let me be clear, there are no real world parallels to anything in the Burnt Empire series. Even the Indian comparisons would not hold up once you see how the story unfolds and characters develop. I’ve only used those sources as a card intended to mislead readers – to lull you into thinking, oh, so that’s what this is about and this is where it’s going – while pulling a bait-and-switch and taking you in a wholly unexpected direction. Characters who do very bad things may turn out to be heroes in another context, while apparent heroes will be put into some very problematic scenarios. Nothing is what it seems, and anything can happen in the world of the Burnt Empire Saga!

DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?

Ashok: There’s quite an ensemble presented in Upon a Burning Throne. They vary from demi-gods whose actions are often barely comprehensible in human terms but whose eventual goals are to bring about some kind of human resolution, to demonlords who appear to have a single agenda but in fact are fully justified in wanting revenge for being denied their due right. There’s a famous saying that the Mahabharata is one epic wherein we see every kind of human character or quality on display, every facet of human interaction and behavior, every relationship, plotline, emotion, you name it. Because of the sheer scope and range of the epic, we see all these characters in different lights at different times. They are all pressed to make choices that are difficult, even impossible at times, and they all have shades of grey. I’ve tried to retain that same complexity and range in my characters and story as well. It’s been famously said that the Mahabharata is also a mirror: If you recoil with loathing at one character’s actions or are profusely offended by someone else, it likely means that those are the very character’s, actions or words that most closely reflect your own inner thoughts and desires. The thing or person that we feel most strongly about is almost always that which we respond to the most. Nobody gives a damn about aliens on another planet who are nothing like us – because they are nothing like us. But when someone resembles you in some way or does something that resembles your own desires, or actions, then it upsets us because we don’t want to admit that we had those same thoughts or desires. So I won’t name a character but I will say that whomever you choose, remember, there are no clear heroes or villains in this story, and whatever your choice, you will definitely be surprised at some point, even shocked. Like I said, this is NOT an American story or even an American epic fantasy. It’s it’s own thing. Enjoy the ride and watch them work out their epic games! All I can promise is that you will be entertained. 🙂

DJ: Aside from the main characters in the story, who is a favorite side character or a character with a smaller role for in story? Why?

Ashok: The animals are my favorite part. They have very tiny cameos but they’re crucial in their own way. I love animals in real life and always write them into my stories whenever possible, and try to give them their due. For me, they’re very much a part of the cast of characters just like our pets are part of our family, and the animals we depend on in our world are part of our ecology.

DJ: What is the world and setting of the Burnt Empire Saga like? 

Ashok: It’s set in the world of Arthaloka, which is a supercontinent about five times the sizes of all our world’s continents put together, is similar in some ways to ancient India and dramatically different in others. For one thing, this is a world where all races have intermingled freely to the point where it’s no longer possible to distinguish people only on the basis of race, religion, caste, creed, etc. Some parts are matriarchal, others are patriarchal; some cultures are fiercely feminist, others are chauvinist, and others have achieved gender equality and have a variety of very different power equations. There are huge, cataclysmic events that will happen later in the series which will quite literally tear the world apart, but I don’t want to say too much about that because the how, why and when of those events are just as important as the events themselves and their consequences. Let’s just say that I built this world from scratch and by the end of the overall story (the Burnt Empire Series), I take it apart and smash it to pieces. Because the war at the center of the epic really is a world-destroying war.

DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Upon a Burning Throne?

Ashok: The fact that I only introduced the main protagonist of the epic as a baby in just one short scene, then she vanishes for the rest of the book, and if I did my job right, then you don’t even realise that she’s the main protagonist because there’s so many other storylines and characters boiling in the cauldron constantly. She comes back with a vengeance (literally) in Book 2, A Dark Queen Rises and from that point on, you’ll have no doubt that she owns and rules this world and the epic as a whole, but I managed to write an entire 246,000 word epic where you don’t even realize that the main lead hasn’t even stepped onstage yet. (She was carried onstage for a brief moment but you didn’t know she was the main lead at the time!) I loved doing that and getting away with it.

DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?

Ashok: The ending, I hope. It’s a shocker. Not in a big, overblown battle kind of way, but something really small yet significant that turns the story around in a whole new direction. I don’t spell it out but it’s pretty obvious that the persons who appear in the last two chapters and say or do certain things are not actually the persons they appear to be. And what they do and say in those two chapters will change everything. I think you’ll have to be trying to figure that out, and if you get it instantly (as I’m sure most readers will) you’ll be thinking about how that impacts what’s ahead

DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began the Burnt Empire Saga? Upon a Burning Throne is only the first book, but is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?

Ashok: My only goal was to tell a great story as best as I could, being true to the story, and nothing else. I guess the only message or theme I have to offer is that there is no black and white when it comes to morality. Not even shades of grey because even grey implies the existence of a scale of black and white at opposite extremes. People are individual shades of color and there are as many shades as there are people with no one color repeating twice. We are all villains to someone out there, and heroes to someone else, and yet the truth is that we are neither. We are simply people, and we are all problematic, and we are all trying to do better, and that makes us human, and it’s all right.

DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Upon a Burning Throne that you can share with us?

Ashok: That’s a tough one! I don’t really look at my own writing in that way. To me, it’s all a work-in-progress. If I try to read it my own work, no matter how many times I’ve revised or rewritten it already, I’ll only see the flaws and want to start over yet again! I don’t have the kind of ego that makes me feel “Oh wow, I wrote that and it’s so cool!” That’s something I leave to readers to decide and find. I guess that’s a cop-out but I really can’t quote from my own work!

DJ: Now that Upon a Burning Throne is released, what is next for you?

Ashok: I’m just finishing up A Dark Queen Rises, which will follow next year. And I continue to write and publish in India. My next book for the US, apart from the Burnt Empire Saga, is a literary novel.

DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?  

Website: www.ashokkbanker.com (It has links to all my socials.)

DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Upon a Burning Throne and the Burnt Empire Saga that we haven’t talked about yet?

Ashok: Read it with an open, non-judgemental mind. I’ve tried to be true to the spirit of ancient mythology rather than tailor the content to contemporary American readers. You’re going to find problematic characters and behavior at times, and I won’t justify that with the tired cliche that “things were different then” because no, just no. They’re problematic and there’s no denying that, but I don’t rationalise or defend it, I simply show it. What you will find, if you persevere, is that the moral center of the story emerges gradually, like the truth always does, and as you keep reading and getting to know the characters and world better, you will find a heart of goodness that shines out amidst the chaos and battle frenzy and moral greyness. It’s a dark and dangerous world and you’re not in America, or even in our world at all. You’re in another place. But there are fabulous things all around and amazing things that are going to happen, and some truly wonderful people you are going to meet along the way. You will knkow them because they will shine like beacons in the darkness, and for that to happen, there must be darkness to begin with. Wait for it. You will be rewarded. The Dark Queen Rises soon, and when she does, she will rule all and own this world.

DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?

Ashok: It took me a lifetime to break into the US and the only reason I did was because of one visionary editor and publisher: John Joseph Adams. If you’re an aspiring (or a perspiring) author of SFFH, don’t think twice: Send in your work to him. Try him first. You will never regret it. I’ve worked with over a hundred editors over my career, and I have a very high stack of glowing thank you notes and gifts (all books) from all those fine editors, but JJA is the king of awesomeness. I’m lucky to have been discovered and published by him.

DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!

Ashok: Thank you for having me. It was an absolute pleasure! I hope I did justice to your excellent questions. Wishing you and everyone who is reading this, Happy Reading! 🙂

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*** Upon a Burning Throne is published by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin and is available TODAY!!! ***

Buy the Book: 

Amazon | Goodreads

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About the Book:

From international sensation Ashok K. Banker, pioneer of the fantasy genre in India, comes the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata

In a world where demigods and demons walk among mortals, the Emperor of the vast Burnt Empire has died, leaving a turbulent realm without an emperor. Two young princes, Adri and Shvate, are in line to rule, but birthright does not guarantee inheritance: For any successor must sit upon the legendary Burning Throne and pass The Test of Fire. Imbued with dark sorceries, the throne is a crucible—one that incinerates the unworthy.

Adri and Shvate pass The Test and are declared heirs to the empire… but there is another with a claim to power, another who also survives: a girl from an outlying kingdom. When this girl, whose father is the powerful demonlord Jarsun, is denied her claim by the interim leaders, Jarsun declares war, vowing to tear the Burnt Empire apart—leaving the young princes Adri and Shvate to rule a shattered realm embroiled in rebellion and chaos….

Welcome to the Burnt Empire Saga


About the Author:

Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than sixty books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. His works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai.

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