The Pyre is the first in the "The Return Of Ravana" fantasy series by David Hair. It follows a group of modern Indian teenagers as they grapple with increasing occurrences of seemingly supernatural events – and looks at some of the causes of those events, centuries in the past.
The setting is provided in two narratively distinct segments. There are chapters set in a town in modern-day India, and those alternate with others, set in the same geography, but 1300 years earlier. The modern setting is clear, a thriving, energetic place, filled with a background noise of commerce and observances of faith – a tangle of the traditional and the encroaching new – perhaps symbolic of the transition that the nation is going through. There’s iconic environmental flashes – when our trio of young protagonists sit on a roof, drinking coke under the sun, a chase scene through the thronging marketplace, moments of contemplation in temples, and in isolated caves.
This rather optimistic vision works as a clever contrast to the setting of the chapters occurring in the past. There we have a sense of darkness, of claustrophobia. There’s an atmosphere of decline, and a seeping sense of fear trickling through the lines on the page. Where the modern world is an expansive, enthusiastic one, here, people are closing their doors on each other, afraid to speak up or, in some cases, speak at all. At the same time, this past is a rich one, with a sense of the mystic, a baroque feel, and a sense of the need to struggle, to survive. The author has built a fusion of two times and places, and in their contrasts they build upon each other, and both are synthesised into locales which felt plausible and real.
The characters – well, there’s a certain parity here, a trio of teenagers in the modern world, sat in parallel with what feel like older versions of themselves, in the past. In the ‘modern’ narrative, we spend our time with two boy and a young woman; of the former, one is somewhat bookish, an intellectual, not afraid of an argument, but perhaps not one able to finish it when it becomes physical. He conflicts with the other boy in some ways – a physically stronger, more impulsive type, with a certain level of disdain for those intellectual pursuits. Both are united in their affection for the third member of their triad, a somewhat untraditional young lady, one prepared to stand up, speak her mind ad – in some cases – tell her two associates that they’re being idiots. Each comes with their own baggage – one boy having just returned from England, trying to fit in. The other has family issues, and is trying to define himself around them as he moves into adulthood. The girl struggles with discrimination and self actualisation – in trying to become who she wants to be, and not, perhaps, what society expects.
They’re sympathetic, well drawn characters. Some of their woes feel a bit dramatic and manufactured – but others are spot on. The scenes of troubled family interactions in particular are quietly powerful, and made compelling reading.
The older characters in the ‘past’ sections have broad similarities to their matches in the modern era. There’s the captain of the palace guard –a man who acts at the behest of more unpleasant characters than himself, and struggles with complicity. There’s a poet, a man prepared to take a moral stand in a moment of strength, or toss it away in a moment of weakness. And there’s a bride, a warrior woman with one hand on the bow, and the other on a knife at her belt. The poet is ineffectual, seemingly defined by a romance that sits in his soul, at odds with the environment he survives in. The bride is a powerful force, a woman determined to survive, to take what actions she must in order to do so – a fierce and moral creature. Perhaps the keenest felt is the guard captain, a man torn by the needs of his position, and bonds of loyalty – and his own sense of personal honour, morality, and sense of what is right. Theirs is a triad perhaps more tormented, potentially more tragic than their younger selves – but one just as honest, and with bonds tied just as tightly.
The plot – well, I shan’t spoil it. Suffice to say that there’s magic here that spans eras. There’s discussion of past lives, of the nature of reincarnation. There’s chases and the occasional bit of gunfire. There’s swordfights and the plots of evil kings. There’s quiet family drama, with an emotional punch – and there’s the rise of friendships and the falls of betrayal. In the end, it’s a fast-paced adventure, and one with a clever and convincing mythology – worth a go!