In Defense of the Realm reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Both books were written by knowledgeable scholars who clearly have a great deal of enthusiasm for their area of study, but whose interest in world-building far outweighed their skills as a novelist. As The Silmarillion can only be tackled by the most devout of Lord of The Rings fans, In Defense of the Realm is best left to scholars with an interest in the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley. This is problematic given that In Defense of the Realm is aimed at children ages 8-12.
The biography of author Sanjay Deshpande at the start of the book informs us that he is an archeologist and heritage consultant who worked on excavations in the 5000-year-old Harappan city of Dholavaria and the Ahar city of Gilund. His knowledge on the peoples of Ancient India is unmatched and this book does offer a number of interesting factoids, such as the people of Harappan developing sewer systems far earlier than their neighbors. Would that there was an exciting story to go with all this information!
It is clear from the narrative that Deshpande’s main interest is in talking about a culture he finds fascinating rather than telling a good story. It is not that his tale of Prince Meluha and his efforts to secure alliances with the neighboring Rajas in order to repel an invasion from Mesopotamia is bad, but rather that the narrative grinds to a screeching halt every time Deshpande wishes to impart some knowledge to the reader. The urgency of Prince Meluha’s journey is undercut by his tutor’s constant observations on the world around them. A visit to a marketplace while waiting on a neighboring Raja to discuss matters with his war council results in a lecture upon how efficient regulations of when deliveries can be made in the city keep the streets clear for shoppers and how fresh vegetables are produced close to the city thanks to the power of irrigation.
The illustrations by Lalit Kumar Sharma are passable, but not particularly noteworthy. The characters are well-designed and distinctive, but the portion at the beginning of the book depicting the major characters could have been larger so that more than five of the major cast could be identified. Sharma showcases the traditional clothing of the Ancient Indian people well enough and displays the differences between the various castes with surprising subtlety. The few action scenes are decently choreographed, though the art can do little to make the numerous scenes of characters doing nothing but talking seem exciting.
In Defense of the Realm contains nothing unsuitable for young readers, but neither can I say it is suitable for them. It is hard to imagine any reader in the target audience not throwing the book aside in boredom. The action sequences and other moments of interest are few and far between the many observations on how amazing the culture of the people of the Indus Valley was. As far as edutainment goes, this book is strictly education with very little entertainment.