One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one-dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter, leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.
Thankfully, that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15, 2009. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and it's all the better for it.
For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up — a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders — Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First, he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on Earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation. They've fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However, that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation. If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year-old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth, the red necked lesbian who works in a shipyard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan, whose differences are more significant than their similarities?