Could you ever imagine a full-blown fantasy novel set in the murky underbelly of modern-day Karachi? A fantasy novel rooted in Islamic concept of heaven and hell? A fantasy novel where the archetype of evil itself, Iblis (The Devil of The Bible) makes an appearance as a lovable rogue? Perhaps not, especially in the context of today’s polarising attitude to the religion itself.
This is one of the reasons that makes Sami Shah’s incredible Boy of Fire and Earth such a joy to read. It takes you back to the days of Arabian Nights and Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, via of course, the Western import of video games, comic books and the all-encompassing influence of Neil Gaiman.
For a while, modern South Asian writing is flirting with creating its own brand of fantasy fiction mixing local fantasy elements with established Western tropes, as Ashok Banker did recently in Awaken. However, this concoction never felt so original as it does in this book. This is perhaps because Shah prepares you by setting up the rules before he unveils his big adventure.
So we meet our intrepid hero Wahid, a sickly but smart middle school teenager with just two close friends who share his love for science fiction and video games. He falls in love with a classmate and his friends begin experimenting with drinks, as occasional gun fires and bomb blasts continue to rock parts of Karachi. It’s the real deal and life is good, until Wahid meets with a car accident, sees his friend die and witnesses his would-be girlfriend’s soul being sucked away from her body by a shadowy figure.
Until this point, this A-story is peppered with off-hand reference to Wahid’s mysterious origin and tales of djinns, how they possess people and how Wahid’s touch can burn a djinn, a being made up of smokeless fire. Then the car crash brings Wahid face-to-face with the shadowy world and here Shah finally unveils his grand adventure.
This setup pays off and how! We meet a university professor who wants to harness the power of djinns to create nuclear energy. We meet an assassin, a clear nod to the Albino character from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but more dangerous. We meet the King of Karachi, a teenage beggar boy, who knows where to find the djinns. Then we go to heaven, or rather limbo with the dead awaiting their judgement. The day has to arrive yet. It will once this world ends.
We meet Dajjal, the creature who will bring about Qayamat. And we meet Iblis, who has a special connection to Wahid and who has a special interest in bringing about Qayamat sooner than it is predicted. As you would have already guessed, it is Wahid who will hold the key to the apocalypse and it is he who must stop it.
As the adventure takes hold and you start turning the pages, what impresses you is how immersive a world Shah has created here. Everything here is explained in simple and clear terms and everything is rooted in the established reality of the book, and Shah’s matter-of-fact narration only adds to the realness of this adventure. The Boy of Fire and Earth is the best example of a South Asian fantasy novel yet.