When I was young, all I knew about author Salman Rushdie was that he’d written a book called The Satanic Verses which caused a whole lot of controversy. Of course, I knew very little about the details of the fatwa and had no idea of the content of the book itself—that it was offensive to Muslims and not to, say, Southern Baptists like twelve-year-old me. I filed Rushdie away under “people to avoid” and pretty much forgot about him. In college, however, I had a roommate who was a big fan of Rushdie’s writing and had actually read several of his novels—and since I trusted his taste in many other things I figured maybe it was worth a shot. My roommate recommended Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is a brilliant children’s book filled with adventure and bizarre characters, a little reminiscent of The Phantom Tollbooth but with a distinctly Indian flavor to it.
Haroun was written for Rushdie’s older son Zafar when the 9-year-old boy had said that his dad ought to write books for kids. There is a more than passing resemblance to the Rushdie family: Haroun is Zafar’s middle name, and the character in the book is the son of Rashid Khalifa, the “Shah of Blah” who is a prolific storyteller. But when his father is suddenly unable to come up with a single tall tale, Haroun goes on an amazing journey to set things right. Well, when Rushdie’s younger son Milan (now 13) was old enough to read Haroun himself, he wanted to know when he would get a story, too. So Rushdie wrote Luka and the Fire of Life, featuring Haroun’s younger brother Luka, off on his own quest to rescue his father.
What’s interesting about Luka is that it was written for a boy who grew up with video games—and also that Rushdie himself is getting older. Both of these things find their way into the book. Rashid Khalifa’s powers seem to be lessening with age and he’s slowing down—until one day he slows down so much he stops altogether, falling Asleep with a smile on his face. Nothing can be done to rouse him, until Luka finds himself transported into the World of Magic, a place that is well-known to him from his father’s stories.
Inspired by his son’s video games, Rushdie turned the Magic World into a sort of sandbox game for Luka—he can see a life counter in his field of vision, as well as a level counter. And as he travels through the world, overcoming obstacles and defeating enemies, he also encounters Save Points where he can save his progress. In the meantime, though, the world is a mixture of all sorts of myths and legends and old gods that only live on in the memory of Rashid Khalifa. Rushdie has an encyclopedic (or maybe Wikipedic?) knowledge of these various entities and their stories, but he also throws in a slew of characters of his own creation, with plenty of puns and wordplay.
Luka is told that the only thing that can save his father is the Fire of Life, which he must steal from the very heart of the World of Magic. But of course it’s never been done before, and even with the help of his trusty dog, Bear, and faithful bear, Dog, it’s going to take a miracle or two to complete his task. Luka and the Fire of Life is chock-full of over-the-top characters but Rushdie expertly wrangles them into a cohesive story that’s a lot of fun to read.
I should note that Rushdie’s grasp of video games is apparently somewhat shallow—I imagine he’s watched his son play them but may not have played them as much himself—because the video game conventions in the story can be a little bit odd. Still, it’s fascinating to see a writer of his caliber using extra lives and save points in this manner. Also, if you’re contemplating this for your own kids, I should mention that there’s a character who is nicknamed “Rats**t” so you may want to be prepared for that.
While it’s not exactly a sequel to Haroun (you can read it without having read the first book), there are some references and allusions to the earlier book and it’s not a bad idea to read them in order. I think I may prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories slightly over Luka and the Fire of Life, but both are excellent tales for people who love wordplay and storytelling.
Wired: Another children’s story from master storyteller Salman Rushdie; Luka’s quest is turned into a video game of sorts.
Tired: You might not want to read the name “Rats**t” aloud to your kids; Rushdie’s grasp of video games is slightly off.
Disclosure: Random House provided a copy of the book for review purposes.