Salman Rushdie's first published novel after the fatwa pronounced against him in 1989 was, to the surprise of many, a children's book: Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Part Swiftian satire, part Arabian Nights wonder-tale, the novel relates the fantastical adventures of Haroun and his father, Rashid the "Shah of Blah" in their quest to save the Sea of Stories from destruction.
Rushdie's son Zafar had asked his father to write a book for kids, but Haroun is also a scathing indictment of the real-world powers that condemn all stories but the official one.
Twenty years later, Luka and the Fire of Life returns to Haroun's world, the imaginary land of Alifbay, but this time his younger brother Luka is the hero of the tale. (And this new book is a gift for Rushdie's younger son Milan).
Luka is a fairly ordinary 12-year-old who loves video games ("alternate-reality boxes"), worries about his left-handedness in a right-handed world and secretly envies his older brother, whose amazing adventures have become family legend.
Luka gets his turn pretty quickly as the novel opens, of course, but not in the way he had imagined. His father, the famous storyteller, begins to get sleepy and then one day simply doesn't wake up. Rashid's life is slipping away, and Luka discovers that the only way to save him is to journey into the World of Magic and steal the precious Fire of Life that burns at the top of the Mountain of Knowledge.
With his loyal pets, Bear the dog and Dog the bear (okay, so he's not that ordinary a boy), Luka sets off on his quest. Accompanying them, much to Luka's horror, is the spectre of his father's death, Nobodaddy, the name a borrowing from William Blake. As Rashid's life signs grow weaker by the hour, the tricksterish Nobodaddy grows more solid and real.
Like its predecessor, Haroun, Luka's story rushes along at a breakneck pace from one wonder to the next, fuelled by the anti-gravitational magic of Rushdie's story-spinning and wordplay. The narrative catapults with dreamlike illogic through numerous story-worlds - there are riddling demons, goddesses from a plethora of pantheons and various Alice in Wonderland-style creatures, such as the prissy Elephant Birds.
But this isn't Haroun's adventure, this is the World of Magic 2.0, where the logic of video games holds sway. Luka must collect enough lives to survive the increasingly dangerous "levels" on the way to the Fire of Life. An obvious effort to appeal to kids' changed tastes, this is the one element of the story that doesn't quite fly. Luka spends a lot of time checking his life-count, wondering if he's collected enough to get through and, accordingly, the perils he encounters feel less urgent.
It's a keen reminder that games and stories work their spells by very different means and for different ends. But Rushdie acknowledges this. The novel's manic energy soars over an underlying anxiety that, in our world of "High Definition and low expectations," the craft (and the magic) of a well-told story may disappear.
There is, then, much more going on here than collecting lives and levelling up. As with Haroun, Rushdie has some wicked fun skewering the intolerance and irrationality of so-called grown-ups, especially in the scenes of Luka's visit to the Respectorate of I, a land of giant rats where everyone takes homicidal offence at the slightest of provocations. The fanatically self-regarding rats of the Respectorate are at war with the land of Oh-Tee-Tee, led by Princess Soraya, the Insultana of Ott, who pilots an ultra-modern magic carpet (complete with protective force field) and urges her zany followers to "expectorate on the Respectorate!"
As with so much children's fiction, the lesson here is that the irreverent energy of childhood is wiser and more sane than the "maturity" of adulthood. But Luka is a special case because his father is the Arch-irreverent, the notorious "Shah of Blah," who leaves no authority unchallenged. Luka is able to defeat every deadly peril not because of his gaming skills but by recalling the knowledge contained in his father's stories.
For the World of Magic, as chaotic as it seems, is really the world of Rashid's tales, and this is Luka's edge when confronted with seemingly impossible odds. He already knows these stories and understands the rules they obey. The lingering question raised by this recurring deus ex poppa is whether Luka truly grows beyond his father's own authority as storyteller. Luka sets out to steal the Fire of Life, but one wishes to see him steal a little more of his father's thunder.
This being a rollicking adventure tale, it's not giving away any great secret to say that everything turns out all right in the end. It's more the getting there - in other words the story - that really matters.
Thomas Wharton writes books for kids and grown-ups, and a blog about stories called Notes from the Perilous Realm.