Aniruddha Bahal has been many things — co-founder of the news magazine Tehelka, a pioneer of sting operations, anchor of the Tony B show on Channel V, and his debut novel Bunker 13 won the 2003 Bad Sex in Fiction award (awarded by the Literary Review to the novel with the worst descriptions of sex).
The last fact alone raises expectations for his latest novel, The Emissary, an intricately plotted adventure-thriller that recounts the adventures of its young narrator, Seleucas Nicanor, at the time of Alexander the Great.
But after ploughing through its 444 pages, this reviewer was disappointed to discover that all the sex in the novel, was at most, a bland one-liner (“the journey to Lesbos was uneventful, except for the nights that Luminas spent with me in my tent”).
The Emissary opens at the famous games at Olympia, where the Macedonian delegation, headed by Alexander, schemes to defeat the famous charioteer Nicanor and win the chariot race. These schemes lead to Nicanor’s murder by his Macedonian rival.
Nicanor’s son, Seleucas, is determined to defeat the Macedonians in the chariot race and avenge his father’s murder. From there on, Seleucas tangles with the Macedonians in Greece and Asia, and becomes a thorn in their side.
Bahal’s knowledge of the ancient Greek world is extraordinary — and it’s evident that a great deal of meticulous research has gone into The Emissary.
He also cleverly acknowledges and satirises his sources — there’s a humorous reference to metal-eating ants, which is a clear allusion to the Greek historian Herodotus’ dubious tale of Indian gold-digging ants.
His creativity in fashioning his complex plot is to be lauded, but if there is a criticism to make, it’s that there is too much plot — the innumerable switches in allegiances, intricate sub-plots, myriad contrivances and coincidences are exhausting and impossible to keep track of.
Moreover, the reader’s knowledge that the Macedonians triumph and build an empire looms large over the plot — how can Seleucas succeed when the Macedonians are destined to be victorious?
The resolution that Bahal creates isn’t surprising. Moreover, the name Seleucas Nicanor bears an extremely close resemblance to that of Seleucas Nicator (Seleucas ‘The Victor’), the founder of the Selucid dynasty, who ruled over an empire that reached unto India, and wedded his daughter to Chandragupta Maurya.
Nonetheless, The Emissary is a fast-paced, entertaining read, and its cliff hanger ending seems to suggest that a sequel is in the offing, one in which, this reviewer predicts, Seleucas Nicanor will become Seleucas the Victor.