Salman Rushdie has said that seeing “The Wizard of Oz” made a writer of him. In “Luka and the Fire of Life,” his new children’s book, “The Wizard of Oz” meets “The Faerie Queen.”
Rushdie grabs everything from everywhere -- cult movies, epic poems, computer games; Apollonius of Rhodes and Shakespeare, Johnny Cash and George Harrison; fantasy, allegory, homily and nonsense. The plot is a race against time: Twelve-year-old Luka braves the World of Magic on a quest for the titular Fire of Life, which he needs to revive his dying father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa.
Like Rushdie’s 1990 “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” to which it forms a pendant, “Luka and the Fire of Life” began as a tale for one of the author’s own sons. It has a seat-of-the-pants inventiveness that suggests a clever dad spinning out “bedtime stories and breakfast sagas and dinner-table yarns.”
That notion is very Rushdie. The narrator of “Midnight’s Children,” his much-acclaimed 1981 novel, more than once compares himself to Scheherazade.
Like Scheherazade, this dad rattles on with a hint of desperation, as though the kid might blow up if he were to stop. Plot twists hurtle at you thick as hailstones. Every paragraph rockets off in a new direction. And as you feel yourself wearing down, you may start to suspect that Rushdie is writing for a specific group of children: the ones with attention deficit disorder.
This kind of writing may indeed captivate tykes who are more at home playing iPhone games than reading. My own eyes glazed over as the author labored to cram every supernatural being from every mythology he could Google into his brief book:
“And fat Fa’atiu the Samoan is over there, and bulgy Buluga of the Andaman Islands is over there, and Ara Tiotio the Tornado God of Polynesia, and Paka’a from Hawaii. And Ays the Armenian Wind Demon, and the Vila, the Slav Goddesses, and the Norse winged giant Hraesvelg ...”
To his credit, he recognizes his tendency to pile it on, or at least he recognizes that others recognize it --“‘Stop, please stop,’ Luka begged. ‘It doesn’t matter what they’re called.’” My guess is that the gentle jibes at the loquacity of Luka’s storytelling father (when he falls ill the headline is “No More Blather From the Shah of Blah”) originated in the Rushdie household.
Insultana of Ott
What’s missing are believable characters. Luka is no Dorothy (and no Judy Garland); he’s your generic plucky lad. The Insultana of Ott, the intrepid queen who comes to his aid, is your generic fiery redhead. The evil Captain Aag is your generic villain.
Will kids who cut their teeth on Harry Potter find anything here to absorb them? Since Rushdie is a parent and I’m not, I can only wonder if he’s on to something. But it would take more magic than he can conjure to extend the spell to grown-ups.
“Luka and the Fire of Life” is from Random House in the U.S. and Jonathan Cape in the U.K. (218 pages, $25, 12 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)