Luka and the Fire of Life is ostensibly a children’s novel. Although it is a sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, reading the first book is by no means a prerequisite. Salman Rushdie’s usual lyrical, narrative style is on full display here, flowing easily through puns, wordplay, rhyming and the dialectical playfulness that defines his oeuvre, though due to the conceit of the story, the content is more accessible than his adult works.
Luka’s father is dying. Imbued with a mystical power and an intimate knowledge of the worlds of his storytelling father, Luka inadvertently sets out on a journey to save his life after encountering his father’s spirit-world doppelganger in the street. Accompanied by his pet dog, named “Bear,” and his pet bear, named “Dog,” our young protagonist starts a journey through the mystical worlds of lore created by his father with the goal of stealing the Fire of Life and saving his father from certain doom. As Luka’s previously mute hirsute friends begin to talk and tell him of their former lives, we realize, along with Luka, that we have gone down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and a magical journey that feels as much like a video game as cultural folklore appears on the horizon.
As noted, this is outwardly a book for children, probably best suited for those around the same age as Luka: 10 to 13. However, underneath the pithy writing and pop-culture-laced references lies a stranger, more adult undercurrent. There is darkness, there is fear and there is a subtle admission that the world of our children is more nuanced and far more advanced than we sometimes care to admit. The author’s conflict here is the reconciliation of the changing mores of our children with the traditions of our past. Rushdie goes in with both eyes open, brushing aside wishful thinking for a more honest look at how our children perceive the world and how the challenges of modern life can work with, rather than against, the traditions of our past.