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FICTION: THE PRISONER OF LOVE

November 12, 2017

Although ostensibly a sequel to Syrene R. Saladin’s The Princess and the Peace, the author’s second novel of the fantastical Viridian series is a standalone book. Whereas the first dealt with the coming of age adventures of Princess Ashiana Arian, the second is an independent love story that dwells primarily on the relationship between her and Prince Ze’ev Zayed. Much of Ashiana’s backstory is summarised in this novel and thus it is not necessary to read the first book in order to enjoy the ‘sequel.’

Except, alas, that one does not really enjoy The Banjaran Princess. In spite of the undoubted sincerity and spirit with which Saladin has approached her writing, it becomes rapidly clear that the author has written the book primarily for her own amusement as opposed to the need to satisfy any particular audience whatsoever. In essence, there is nothing wrong with this, especially given that the work is self-published; however, not even the most self-absorbed of writers can argue that one’s readers do matter.

A choppy plot, layers of hyperbole, several grammatical errors and typos and a somewhat immature writing style sadly underscore why a text such as this would have, at best, limited appeal. This is a shame because it is evident that Saladin cares about her characters; her failure lies in the fact that after swimming through close to 400 pages of her book, the reader does not. In fact, with the exception of Ashiana’s 15 year old son Tehmur, one would be hard-pressed to find a single mature or balanced character in the book.

A fantasy novel with a heroine straight out of a nightmare

The biggest problem, however, is Princess Ashiana herself. Having suffered a traumatic childhood and youth — she was placed in a brothel after a faithless prince made her pregnant — she finds it difficult to trust any man and it would not be far-fetched to label her a rabid man-hater. At the commencement of the novel she is captured by a colonel who is in actuality the prince of the fictional kingdom of Azure. She does her best to make life a living hell for him, primarily because she is still plagued by past demons. However, Colonel Ze’ev Zayed is a macho, but good-hearted man who finds himself falling inexplicably in love with Ashiana, perhaps because he glimpses the vulnerability that lies beneath her indomitable exterior.

Although when Ashiana is captured everyone believes that she is simply the bodyguard of Princess Jasmine of Dalt who is on her way to marry the old king of Daure, her true identity is gradually revealed. This leads to a complex set of political machinations that result in Ze’ev becoming betrothed to Ashiana against her will. Much of the novel centres on how she is tamed, rather like a wild horse, to the point where she becomes a fairly biddable and loving wife. Her mentor, General Babur of the kingdom of Dalt, believes that opening herself to loving and being loved will solve most of Ashiana’s problems, and while his sentiments are well-meaning, the manner in which the princess satisfies his ambitions for her comes across as unrealistic at best and ludicrous at worst.

For instance, Ashiana slyly gets pregnant by sleeping once with Ze’ev, so that she can replace a child that was taken away from her several years earlier. This makes one doubt both Ashiana’s ethics and her sanity. It is all the more disturbing because among other duties, the princess oversees the running of a number of orphanages and her attitude towards child-rearing is dysfunctional at best. In spite of Saladin’s efforts to paint her as a noble or tragic figure, Ashiana generally comes across as emotionally overwrought and mentally unstable.

One wonders often what the sensible — if somewhat chauvinistic — Ze’ev sees in a fiery, rude and rather uncouth woman, beautiful and sensual though she may be. Perhaps the answer is that love is blind and if that is the lesson Saladin is attempting to teach us, then she certainly succeeds. But this success does not make for pleasant or romantic reading and violent scenes, such as one where Ashiana viciously bites Ze’ev’s ear or beats up her ex-lover, make one grimace with distaste.

Were Saladin a more experienced novelist, she might have handled the issue of gender-related violence with better skill and finesse. Sadly, she lacks both those traits when it comes to her writing — indeed, this is sometimes reflected in the very language of the novel itself. Sentences such as “she was the pock-marked putrid offspring of a sub-literate mongrel — the mongrel being her mother” make even hardened readers such as myself cringe. Even a moderately sound editor would have been able to circumvent such embarrassing moments and Saladin would do well to keep this in mind when it comes to continuing the Viridian series.

A possible alternative to continuing the series, though, would be for Saladin to apply herself to leaving the realm of fantasy and focusing instead on historical fiction. The quasi-Eastern valley of Viridian with its surrounding kingdoms is hardly able to hold its own alongside other fantastical young adult fiction that is far superior and more popular. However, given the rich history of the East in general and the subcontinent in particular — not to mention the strong undercurrents of romance that permeate it — perhaps Saladin can direct her energies towards a feminist recounting of the adventures of Razia Sultana or the Mughal princess Jahanara Begum.

Moreover, since Saladin relies heavily, almost excessively, on interpersonal conversations, she may benefit from trying to write plays as opposed to novels. It would be uncharitable to discourage self-published authors from writing especially since many people find writing to be both cathartic as well as therapeutic. However, unless one is something of a literary masochist, one is often tempted during one’s perusal of The Banjaran Princess to stop reading. And while that may not be noble, it is tragic.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Banjaran Princess
By Syrene R. Saladin
Self-published
370pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017