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If you're expecting magical realism on a level with Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," you may initially be disappointed in "Luka and the Fire of Life" (Random House, 240 pages, $25). But the charm and cleverness of this buoyant fantasy will draw you into its Magical World.
More akin to his "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" than to "Midnight's Children," "Luka" is part fairy tale, part video game, aimed primarily at the young adult market. On one level, it's a tale of a 12-year-old boy -- Haroun's younger brother -- on a quest to save his dying father; on another level, it's a metafiction about storytelling.
Luka's father, the "legendary storyteller of Kahani," has been cast into a deep sleep from which he cannot awaken. He's slowly dying. Luka feels responsible: Earlier, Luka had put a curse on the circus because of its mistreatment of animals, whereupon the circus' evil Captain Aag retaliated by poleaxing Luka's father. To save his father, Luka and his two friends, a singing dog named Bear and a dancing bear named Dog, enter into the World of Magic, a world created by Luka's storytelling father, to steal the Fire of Life. The Fire gives new life to the dying.
Nobodaddy, a ghostly, transparent being, sometimes accompanies and occasionally stalks our heroes. Nobodaddy grows more solid as Luka's father weakens. During their adventures, Luka and crew earn and lose several lives, as in a video game. They advance one level at a time and save their progress as they sail on magical rivers in the Argo and fly on King Solomon's Flying Carpet. Luka battles the Old Man of the River, Nazi-like rats, and no-longer-worshiped gods like Ra, Zeus and Anzu. Later, more friends help Luka -- Memory Birds, shape-shifting flying dragons and even the First Thief himself: Prometheus.
Riddles, puns and other wordplay enliven the writing for teens. But not all of the puns are aimed at kids, and only older adults will get Nobodaddy's joke when he calls the Eddiefish in the river's whirlpools Nelson, Duane and Fisher. Still, there are plenty of references that teenagers will get, including some to Sherlock Holmes and to the "Back to the Future" movies.
I'm sure the omniscient storyteller telling a story about his son saving the dying storyteller will keep metafiction fans entertained, but if you haven't read any Rushdie, this World of Magic is a fantastic place to start.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.