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Luka and the Fire, By Salman Rushdie

The 'Midnight's Children' author leads us through the Mists of Time in search of the Heart of Magic

In 1990, Salman Rushdie, then in hiding, introduced us to a young boy called Haroun, whom he sent off on a fantastical adventure on the "Ocean of the Streams of Story". Twenty years on, it is the turn of Haroun's younger brother, Luka, to be the adventurer. When their father, Rashid Khalifa, the legendary storyteller of Kahani, the famous "Shah of Blah", falls into a deep sleep and cannot be woken, it falls to Luka to revive him. He must go on a quest, and return with the Fire of Life.

Luka, a left-handed hero in a right-handed world, is accompanied on his journey by his dog (called Bear) and his bear (called Dog), and Nobodaddy, a wraith-like figure who resembles his father and is, we learn, Rashid's death-in-waiting. As the story develops, others join the party – a couple of long-memoried elephant-birds, the Insultana of Ott, a coyote and even the Titan Prometheus himself – and together they hurtle through the World of Magic on a flying carpet that was once a gift from Solomon the Wise.

Like Haroun and the Sea of Stories, this is a book about storytelling and the human storytelling impulse: the World of Magic through which Luka journeys is the world created by his father's imagination. It is also a book, in part, about time, and a challenge to it. In the final phase, Luka has to confront Past, Present and Future, the Trinity of Time who are the guardians of Knowledge and the Fire. Luka's band travels along the River of Time (an actual river), and through the Mists of Time (actual mists) and a wasteland called, yes, the Waste of Time, on their way to the Fire of Life. (They also pass the Rings of Fire, the Lake of Wisdom, and cross the Inescapable Whirlpool towards the Heart of Magic, the Mountain of Knowledge, the Tree of Terror, etc. There are a lot of capital letters.)

We are in the territory of allegory and folktale: a gatekeeper who must be defeated in a riddling contest; talking animals (Bear the dog has a slight foreign accent), dragons, curses, the granting of wishes, and the sort of self-conscious, writerly world where reds are always vermilion and the narrator's tone is insistently clever. But where the setting of Haroun was almost timeless, Luka's narrative yanks the reader into the 21st century (well, the end of the 20th), with this quest quite explicitly following the modes of a computer game – moving from one level to the next, acquiring extra lives (they appear in a little counter in the top-left corner of Luka's field of vision), and so on. Luka, who himself has a Muu – a magical box for playing games – understands this language at once.

Rushdie's jokes are always knowing, and they are jokes for adults – for parents, as may be. So we meet, for example, the Otters, who are not furry animals but inhabitants of the land of Oh-Tee-Tee, "ringed by bright waters", where all behaviour is to excess. There are Chinese Wind Gods and Taiwanese Wind Lions and the former don't recognise the latter. There are allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Narnia, Star Wars, "Ozymandias", and to 1,001 other tales. Rushdie has, it would seem, thrown everything at this one.

But, besides its density of allusions, it has elements that are marvellously original, too, such as a land of decommissioned gods, and there are moments that are startlingly beautiful, both for the richness of the imagining and the crafting of some of the prose. The rhythm and the tone are mostly familiar from Haroun, and like Haroun, too, this is not quite a children's book. Or at least, not the kind whose readership is of an obvious age to read it for themselves. It is too young, or too old. But parents who are keen on reading aloud to their children will take great pleasure in the tale and its telling, and will find this fable, like its predecessor, an eloquent example of the games a fine storyteller can play.

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