Opening line: ‘There was once, in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay, a boy named Luka who had two pets, a bear named Dog and a dog named Bear, which meant that whenever he called out ‘Dog!’ the bear waddled up amiably on his hind legs, and when he shouted ‘Bear!’ the dog bounded towards him wagging his tail.’
Dog the bear was a dancing bear, and Bear the dog could sing in tune; Luka had rescued both from the cruel circus master Captain Aag. When Luka’s father Rashid Khalifa, the Shah of Blah, the most renowned storyteller in Alifbay, falls gravely ill, Luka follows his father’s death-shadow into the World of Magic. Together with his friends Dog and Bear and with the dubious aid of Nobodaddy, the death-shadow, Luka journeys through the World Magic seeking the Fire of Life that would save his father, undo his friends’ enchantments, and ultimately save the World of Magic itself. Unfortunately, the Fire of Life is at the very peak of the Mount Knowledge, guarded not only by the Mists of Time, El Tiempo the Whirlpool, the Trillion and One Forking Paths, and into the Heart of Magic. If Luka gets through all of that, then he still has to meet the Aalim, representing the Past, Present, and Future, who guard the Fire of Life jealously. Oh, and one other thing: the Fire of Life has never, successfully, been stolen before.
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie is the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but you don’t necessarily have needed to read one to read the other. Whereas Haroun goes to the moon to the Sea of Stories in his adventures, Luka stays ‘on earth’, so to speak, to travel in the World of Magic. (‘The Torrent of Words, by the way, thunders down from the Sea of Stories into the Lake of Wisdom, whose waters are illumined by the Dawn of Days, and out of which flows the River of Time.’) For Luka, the World of Magic takes on videogame-like qualities: he must acquire certain things to give him ‘lives’, he must advance through various levels and find the ‘save’ button so that that if he ‘dies’ he doesn’t have to go all the way back to the beginning. In essence, the World of Magic is read or navigated by Luka by what is familiar to him — in the Real World he plays lots of video games, so when faced with a Magical World, he interprets what he sees by what he knows. Likewise, the World of Magic is clearly the world of Rashid Khalifa’s invention, created by all of the stories he has told Luka. It is a very imaginative story, with plenty of allusions to other stories — both new and old, from Doctor Who to ancient Sumeria.
Personally, I prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories to Luka and the Fire of Life, but I think that is mainly because I am not quite the intended audience for Luka. Having never been big into video or computer games, the structure of the World of Magic didn’t resonate with me. My favourite section was when Luka and his companions travelled through the Heart of Magic and came across the valleys of old, forgotten gods of mythology. No longer believed in in the Real World, the gods of various mythologies had retreated to the World of Magic, where they can still live on in stories. Rushdie’s commentary about the different gods (ranging from the Greek and Roman to Chinese, Korean, various Native American and African, Aztec, etc.) was particularly amusing, and the portrayal of Coyote was the best of all.
This books is well suited to the 8-12 age-group, and for any pretend-grown-ups who enjoy creative storytelling and Salman Rushdie.