Sunday, April 24, 2016

The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha

The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 10+

This was, I believe, the first book I ever read by the author of the wonderful Prydain Chronicles and so many other favorite books. It was when I was a child myself, and not just a grown-up specializing in book reviews of children's books. Coming back to it after so many years, I remembered only a little about it, apart from the exotic impression it left behind. And now having re-read it, I am understandably struck by a sense of the familiar - but surprisingly, not because I can remember the experience of reading it before, but because I can smell its kinship to the Prydain Chronicles. Alexander was inspired by Persian folklore in this instance, and by Welsh in the other; but some of the ideas cross over, such as a questing trio being composed of an unlikely hero, a tough-minded princess, and a comical bard-type character (a versifier in one case, a minstrel in the other). Perhaps the obvious similarities stop there. But it is equally evident that both tales - whether a five-book arc or this stand-alone book - spring from the imagination of a master storyteller with one ear tuned to the patterns and inflections of ancient legends, and the other to the hearts and funny-bones of today's children.

Lukas, who sometimes gives his name as Kasha, enjoys his position the official town ne'er-do-well of the village of Zara-Petra - swindling a merchant here, playing tricks on the mayor there - until the day a traveling conjurer summons him from the crowd to assist him in a spectacular trick. As soon as the magician dunks Lukas' head in a pot of water, the young man finds himself splashing in the ocean off a strange coast. Almost immediately he is discovered by the ministers of the kingdom of Abadan - I know, he's never heard of it either - and hailed as its new king, who was prophesied to rise from the sea.

At first, Lukas enjoys his part in the magic trick, losing himself in a life of pleasure such as only the figurehead ruler of a powerful, Central Asian country can afford. But then he realizes his administrators hold all the real power, and they are using it for cruel purposes. He starts to study how to be a better king and how to make better laws. He tries to think of a way to stop the war brewing between his country and the mountain people of the north. He saves a versifier from being impaled on a spear for writing rude verses about him and his Grand Vizier. He soon becomes such a thorn in the side of his counselors that they begin plotting to assassinate him.

Suddenly Lukas is a king on the run from his own government. He still wants to try to stop the war Shugdad, the Grand Vizier, is determined to wage with neighboring Bishangar. But it is all he can do to keep himself and his companions out of the clutches of robbers, enemy soldiers, and his own army, which is just as dangerous. Meanwhile, he tries to teach a hard-bitten Bishangari girl there are ways to get things done without dying or killing, and ultimately he uses his experience as a ne'er-do-well to do very well indeed.

There is nothing I can say about the story's ending that wouldn't be an unforgivable spoiler. Just expect it to be marvelous, magical, bittersweet, and wide open for your imagination to play in. Then be sure not to miss some of Alexander's other stories set in exotic climes: The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen; The Fortune-Tellers; The Arkadians; The Iron Ring; The Rope Trick; and The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio. I myself have yet to taste only a few of these well-seasoned dishes. But Lloyd Alexander has never disappointed me yet.

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