Mandore, Rajasthan, 769 AD: Ravindra-Raj, the evil sorcerer-king, devises a deadly secret ritual, where he and his seven queens will burn on his pyre, and he will rise again with the powers of Ravana, demon-king of the epic Ramayana. But things go wrong when one queen, the beautiful, spirited Darya, escapes with the help of Aram Dhoop, the court poet.
Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 2010: At the site of ancient Mandore, teenagers Vikram, Amanjit, Deepika and Rasita meet and realize that the deathless king and his ghostly brides are hunting them down. As vicious forces from the past come alive, they need to unlock truths that have been hidden for centuries, and fight an ancient battle . . . one more time.
I missed out on reading David Hair’s previous series The Moontide Quartet and I was determined to get in on his next series. The Return of Ravana sounded amazing; the mix of mythical retelling and modern-day setting really appealed to me. The Return of Ravana isn’t actually a new series, the series was previously published by Penguin India. Jo Fletcher Books is rereleasing it with new covers, new titles and in the case of The Pyre a slightly tweaked text. The Pyre is the first book in the quartet and I was stoked to get the chance to read it. And after all the good things I’d heart about Hair’s writing, The Pyre definitely didn’t disappoint.
India is easily and often exoticised in books and visual media. And its history and customs are often misrepresented or romanticised, but I felt that Hair steered away from this quite well. One of the most controversial traditions, and central to The Pyre’s plot, was the practice of sati, the burning alive of a deceased husband’s wive(s) on his funeral pyre. I first encountered the phenomenon when I was nine or ten when I saw the TV adaptation of The Far Pavilions — my parents never monitored my TV time closely. Also, that adaptation, can you say white-washed much? Anyway, back on topic — in which the hero rescues the heroine from a ritual sati. It left me horribly fascinated and yes, the rescue seemed the epitome of romantic. I wondered how Hair would handle it in his narrative. Would he portray it disapprovingly, matter-of-factly, making it an active choice or a forced decision? It’s a tough call to make, because it could offend people no matter which way you choose to go. Hair portrays the sati as the horrific ritual it was, letting his past-timeline characters recognise the horror and injustice, while also showing us people who thought it was a valid choice and not all of them one of the bad guys. But I still found the scenes upsetting, far more so than nine-year-old me did. The rescue wasn’t as straight-forwardly romantic either, with two possible heroes and I loved the way Hair showed us their reasoning for acting or not.
The book is divided into two timelines. One set in 769 AD and one set in 2010. While the oldest timeline forms the basis of the entire narrative, most of the action or perhaps the forward motion is set in the present. I liked how the timelines alternated and how in some cases they almost touched when the past echoes through to the present, as in the scenes set at the Fortress of Mandore. They also informed each other with the chapters set in the past explaining or setting up events in the future or allowing us to recognise incarnations in the present. While reincarnation plays an important role in the story, I liked that the characters in the present aren’t carbon-copies of those in the past. They are distinct people, with perhaps similar character traits and resonating memories, but they are not identical; Vikram, Amanjit, Deepika, and Rasita have obviously grown in the lives that separate them from Aram, Shasti, Darya, and Padma.
The two timelines are both exciting, with the narrative in 769 essentially being one long escape sequence and that of 2010 being a mystery. And while I loved the historical setting, my favourite was the present-day timeline, because of the mystery element and the way our protagonists need to discover what exactly is going on. In the past timeline my favourite character were Darya and Shasti. Darya is amazing, I loved how she practically takes over her own rescue once Aram has taken her out of the fortress. Shasti, the guard captain charged with retrieving her was also a compelling character, torn as he is between duty and love—love of his sister Padma, but also his forbidden love for Darya. Aram Dhoop, court poet and unlikely rescuer, was an interesting character and sympathetic, but I connected with Shastri more strongly. This preference between the male protagonists was echoed in the present day where I also preferred Amanjit over Vikram. But while I liked Deepika, I preferred Amanjit’s little sister Ras to her. Bookish, stubborn, brave Ras was a wonderful character, though she is spectacularly overlooked by the others for most of the book.
The ending of the book was lovely with all of the loops closed and no questions unanswered, other than the uncertainty of the future and the question of whether Ravindra has truly been vanquished. I look forward to reuniting with our intrepid quartet and discovering whether the traces of the Ramayana we spied in The Pyre will become even more pronounced in the next book. I really enjoyed this first book in David Hair’s The Return of Ravana series. If you like fantasy influenced by mythology and would like to explore beyond the well-known Western mythologies, The Pyre is an excellent departure point.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.