In 1990 Rushdie published his great and profound fairy-tale `Haroun and the Sea of Stories' (see my Amazon review). It had been written for Rushdie's then eleven year old son Zafar; but part of the trigger for it and an element in its power had been a traumatic crisis in Rushdie's life: the fatwa which had been pronounced against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini, calling on loyal Muslims to kill the author of `The Satanic Verses' for having used his imagination in the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. `Haroun' was an eloquent defence of the freedom of speech and of the importance of the imagination. Rushdie and Zafar both figured in the book under the names of Rashid the story teller, and Haroun.
Twenty years later Rushdie has written `Luka and the Fire of Life' for his second son, 12 year old Milan, born 18 years after Zafar. The connection with the earlier book is made explicit: we meet Rashid and Haroun again; there are references to Haroun's exploits in the earlier book; Luke is Haroun's younger brother; their mother in both books is Soraya (though the real-life Zafar and Milan have different mothers.)
One speculates whether there had been a crisis that triggered the second book - possibly an illness which had made Salman aware that at 63 he was quite an elderly father of a young boy. At the beginning of the story Rashid, described as having slowed up for some time, falls into a deep sleep from which he could not be roused. His life was visibly ebbing.
Luka had already once experienced having magical powers. His father had told him much about the World of Magic, which exists in parallel to the Real World. In that World could be found the Fire of Life on top of the Mountain of Knowledge from which flows the Torrent of Words into the Lake of Wisdom out of which flows the River of Time. Luka now crosses into that World of Magic and sets out on the quest to bring the Fire of Life back to his father. The journey is of course full of bizarre happenings, obstacles and life-threatening dangers. Luckily, as in the Virtual Reality of computer games, Luka has a certain number of lives he can lose without being out of the game.
Along the route Salman Rushdie introduces philosophical themes. The importance of the imagination and of story telling is of course again one of them. Another, recurring frequently, is the nature of Time.
Adding to his own exuberant and kaleidoscopic creations, Rushdie plays with and joyfully combines elements of ancient folk tales and mythologies of ancient cultures ranging from Mexico through the Mediterranean and the Middle East to India and Japan, and from Scandinavia to Africa. And at the climax, when all these mythical creatures are about to put a horrible end to Luka's quest and to deny him the Fire that might save his father's life, he disarms them in a magnificent and truly Rushdiean manner, and they even help him on the perilous journey back to the Real World.
Rushdie's writing is often iridescent, and powerful in the description of the many cataclysmic scenes. His word-plays (some witty, others so corny that they are surely designed to elicit groans from 12 year old readers) and his inventions flow fast and furiously - but the inventions have neither the cohesiveness nor the depth of the issues to be found in the earlier book.
It is all a jolly and at times an educational romp. As a story for children I think it rates the five stars I have given it. As a story for adults, too, it is very entertaining, even if it does not quite match the quality of `Haroun'.