'Ruler of the World', the third in a series of epic quintets, 'Empire of the Moghul', opens with a 14-year-old emperor Akbar killing two tigers - a female with a single shot from a musket and then its avenging mate with a slash of his sword. The exhilaration of the kill is short-lived, for in the next moment he receives news that his capital, Delhi, has been lost to an invader, Hemu.
With this exciting opening, Michael and Diana Preston, the husband-wife duo of authors, who write under the name Alex Rutherford, tell a tale of adventure about an emperor who increased the empire three times the one he had inherited from his father, Humayun.
Akbar leads his troops in battle in Bihar and Bengal during the monsoon season, the battle-hardened elephants and heavy cannons wading through the swampy terrain and fast-moving swollen rivers. He leads successful military campaigns to Gujarat and Kashmir. The battle scenes are racy and vividly drawn; the pageantry is rich and colourful 'as the 10,000 war elephants, their tusks painted gold to show that they are returning in glory from battle'.
There are more than 140 small and big rebellions during the years of Akbar's reign but it was also a time of religious tolerance. He was courageous and ruthless in war, but sought religious harmony in the empire. He chose wives to consolidate alliances within his kingdom. He was interested in different religions and started his new composite religious faith, Din-e-Ilahi.
The story is historically accurate to a large extent; Akbar had his own chroniclers who wrote the 'Akbarnama'. But the story builds on Akbar's personal life and his marriage with a Hindu Rajput wife. The authors do not follow the love story immortalised by Indian films, but recreate Hirabai, the Rajput princess of Amber as hostile to Akbar for defeating the Rajputs. Their relationship serves to alienate their son, Salim, from his father. It deteriorates further when Salim seduces Anarkali, who is depicted as Akbar's blonde concubine from Venice in the book.
It is also a story of intrigue, murder and rebellious sons. Akbar has a fraught relationship with Salim, who carries out a short-lived rebellion but eventually becomes the emperor, Jahangir, at Akbar's death. But Salim's son, Khusrau, favoured by his grandfather, rebels against his father.
The second half of the book focusses more on Salim and his travails with an emperor as father - a demanding father, who no longer trusts any man, even his sons after the betrayal by his wet nurse and her son, a childhood companion.
'Empire of the Moghul' is slated to be a five-book series about Babur and his descendants. The first book, 'Raiders from the North' related the story of Babur, who came from the tiny kingdom of Ferghana to win for himself the crown of Delhi through his sword, Alamgir. The second book in the series, 'Brothers at War' dealt with the fratricidal war between Babar's son, Humayun, and his half brothers as Humayun loses and then regains the Moghul empire in India. Both books were on the bestseller list for several weeks.
'Ruler of the World' is Akbar's saga, and it is a lively read for lovers of adventure stories.
Book: 'Empire of the Moghul: Ruler of the World'; Author: Alex Rutherford, Publisher: Headline Review; Price: Rs.495; Pages: 416