Monday, November 17, 2014

The History Mystery Series

The History Mystery Series
Written by Natasha Sharma
Illustrated by: Various
Publisher: Duckbill Books
Age: 6+

As a history buff, I frequently  find myself  defending the subject’s honour when it is slandered by my school-going daughter and her friends. Not that I can blame them, really, as I passed through the same school system and know full well how a subject as fascinating  as this can be so easily reduced to stale facts, endless  lists of dates, and dull reverential commentary on long-dead greats. For me, History, is the story of ourselves – it isn’t just great wars , mighty political transactions and who-killed-whom-where,  but also the mundane, everyday actions and ideas and oh-so – avoidable blunders (Christopher ‘I-found-India’ Columbus,  Akbar ‘I’m building me a fabulous new city’ -   this means you!! ) that pave the road to who we are today.  So you have to cheer for a series  that offers you “mysteries you’ll never find in history books’.

Natasha Sharma’s History Mystery series is whacky and irreverent (Ashoka the Great blowing bubbles in his bath! Akbar having a hissy fit!) and very entertaining. Designed in the chapterbook format for younger readers, it sets its tales in different historic periods , with some suspense, many oddball characters and a great deal of slapstick comedy thrown in. It also cleverly weaves in a lot of factual data, sneaking a quick history lesson or two right past its unsuspecting , helplessly giggly, readers.

Akbar and the Tricky Traitor , the first book in the series, has that noble ruler fuming over slanderous comments made about him by a neighbouring king. Clearly there is a mole in Akbar’s court, passing on every thought the Emperor has almost as soon as he has it – but who? Enter the Super Six, a quintet of spies who then proceed to muddy the investigative waters a great deal, before clearing things up.

Ashoka and the Muddled Messages is reviewed in greater detail here.

Raja Raja and the Swapped Sacks cranks the laugh-out loud comedy up a notch, and moves the drama to foreign shores. Someone is waylaying the great Chola king’s cargo of spices to China and replacing them with trash. So Raja Raja’s top sleuth, Only One, sets out to catch the crook, armed with little more than his wits and a barrage of knock-knock jokes, only to be promptly waylaid himself – by pirates!

Each of these books end with an impressive reading list – author Natasha Sharma has clearly done her research well, and it shows in the details. Ashoka, did in fact, have an all-woman posse of bodyguards, (though probably not as goofy as the ten Ts the author bestows on him), and dyeing your beard all kinds of crazy colours was, incredibly enough, a thing! Akbar’s meals were actually prepared and delivered to him in the manner described in “..Tricky Traitor”. And in the time of Raja Raja Chola , hero stones were indeed the equivalent of  sponsored ads in the present day.

My one grouse with the books would be that their plots sound rather similar to each other - cranky king, bumbling spies who add to the confusion before sorting things out, treacherous courtiers. That said, the books are  great reads and  brim with ingenious characters - Ashoka's T10 and  Kalapathy Arrghety's shrewish mummy were my favourites.

Given how far back India’s history stretches,  and the plethora of dynasties, despots and aspirants to the label ‘Greatest of the Great’ that  now squabble for space in  the footnotes of our history textbooks – I  look forward to seeing where the History Mystery series  takes us next. 

I received these books as review copies from the publisher; the views expressed here, however, are entirely my own.

Images courtesy: Duckbill 

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