With HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES, Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie introduced audiences to a bizarre world of unlikely creatures: strange beasts and mythical monsters, intelligent beings in a spectacular video game-like setting that takes readers well beyond their own imaginings. LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE returns to this fantasy land, which is strange, brilliant and somehow familiar --- a place of adventure and danger where children can learn valuable life lessons about principles such as knowledge, wisdom and complex human behavior.
Luka's strange story begins with a dark curse, uttered unwittingly toward the grandmaster of a poorly run circus. Observing how destitute and pitiful the animals seem, Luka fumes and speaks scathingly during a hushed moment of a performance: "May your animals stop obeying your commands and your rings of fire eat up your stupid tent." To his surprise, the effect is profound. Beasts of all kinds --- mild and fierce --- revolt the absoluteness of the Grandmaster's control. Wrathful but horrified, the awful man flees in terror, and ever since, Luka has enjoyed the company of his two renegade pets: a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog.
Playful and mischievous, the 12-year-old has won notoriety among his peers with his playground exploits. He's the treasured child of older parents who regard him as a gift from the heavens, having brought them life and the experience of knowing perpetual youth. Yet as Luka matures, he's grasping their physical fallibility, and his father's mental capacities have been waning. Then one particularly eventful evening slows the old storyteller even further. One starry, clear night that is blessedly free of smog, the sky appears so animated that it actually draws people into the streets to dance and celebrate the "carnival of stars." Perhaps there is real magic behind this energy that fills them up and takes Rashid to his land of dreams. In any case, it is the last night Rashid is awake and talking, and it may be that it's his final hour in the world of the real.
As Rashid slumbers on happily, he requires intravenous feeding, and a distressed Luka ponders the idea that his father might never return. On exiting the front door of their house, Luka crosses some kind of magical barrier into the Nether World. There is an alienness to this place, most simply explained as the "negative" of the Real World, and there is also a disturbing yet familiar figure here: this is the transparent form of Luka's father, Rashid. The being introduces himself as "Nobodaddy" and is immediately disagreeable to Luka. Nobodaddy hints at the idea that this Nether World was created by Rashid's imagination and, explaining the impossibility of the quest, challenges Luka to steal the Fire of Life, daring him to find the courage and will to save his father. Yet as Rashid fades, Nobodaddy becomes stronger in this Nether World, and he also reveals that there's a price to be paid even if Rashid is rescued.
Readers should be aware that it's not necessary to read HAROUN AND THE SEA OF STORIES before reading this one as both books stand very well on their own. LUKA AND THE FIRE OF LIFE is a story with real creative genius behind it, both in the ideas and the marvelously expressive writing of a master storyteller. Many of the beasts and beings that Luka encounters are original creations of his, while others are additions from multicultural mythologies. Rushdie provides thoughtful witticisms and funny little analogies in fable form, and the Nether World itself is so full of life and energy that it provides endless entertainment. If you can name a fantasy-based creature, it's bound to be in here: fire-breathing dragons, worms that eat holes in the fabric of time, sickfish, dwarf bandits, elephant birds, thin-skinned border rats, disrespectful otters, minotaurs, ogres, mermaids, badly behaved gods...the list goes on and on.
Because the Nether World is borne of Rashid's imagination, all the creatures in his mind and his many thoughtful insights are there for Luka to learn from and experience. To reach the Fire, Luka must travel through the Fog of the Past and find the Dawn of Time, the Lake of Wisdom, the Mountain of Knowledge, and finally the Fire itself. After reading the first few chapters, it should be obvious to readers how ingenious this one-of-a-kind story is.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on November 16, 2010