[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
“I used the imaginary kingdom not as a sentimentalized fairyland, but as an opening wedge to express what I hoped would be some very hard truths,” Lloyd Alexander once said, explaining that fantasy and fairy tales, far from being escapist, are “the way to understand reality.” In The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha, Alexander asks a tricky question: What happens when reality must be lived but can never be explained, not even by fairy tales?
The novel starts abruptly: ne’er-do-well Lukas-Kasha wanders through the village square and decides to upstage Battisto, an itinerant magician performing hackneyed tricks. At Battisto’s request, Lukas stares into a bucket of water and suddenly washes ashore in the exotic land of Abadan—where, in fulfillment of prophecy, he is hailed as king. Quickly bored by royal luxury, Lukas develops a conscience and begins to study the workings of his government in an attempt to become a proper statesman. Hated by his scheming vizier but aided by a poet and a secretive slave-girl, Lukas also tries to end the pointless war with the neighboring Bishingari. Faced with failure, he discovers the grave responsibilities that come with being a serious person—all the while wondering why Battisto sent him to Abadan in the first place.
Published in 1978, The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha is rife with themes developed more carefully by Alexander in later decades. As in The Iron Ring and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, a young king and queen learn humility; as in the Westmark books, a king concludes that monarchies are obsolete; as in The Rope Trick, the hero finds no answers to baffling existential quandaries. A fine novel in its own right, Lukas-Kasha stands out from those other books in its surprising and unconventional final chapter. Poignant but unsentimental, Lukas-Kasha offers something surprising and sad: the truth of a bittersweet ending.