Barry Hughart
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Bridge of Birds

Del Rey, PB, © 1984, 278 pp, ISBN #0-345-32138-3
Reviewed June 2000

Subtitled "A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was", Bridge of Birds has the feel of some old folk tale, but it's told in frequently modernized language ("You got a problem?") and, for that matter, characterization, and its plot is more tightly woven than any fable I've ever heard.

Number Ten Ox is a citizen of the village of Ku-fu in rural China in 639 a.d. The local businessmen have inadvertently poisoned many children of the village and put them into a coma. Ox heads to Peking to enlist a wise man, and he comes back with the drunkard Master Li Kao, a sage with a slight flaw in his character. (What's the flaw? That, you'll have to glean from the book yourself.) Master Li learns that only the Great Root of Power can save the children, and he and Ox set out to procure the mysterious substance.

Bridge of Birds is at once a quest story, and a mystery. Between them, they seem to embody all the best qualities of literary and pulp heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Doc Savage to Batman, reasoning and blustering their way through a variety of challenges: The Ancestress, the aged woman who once rules all China; the Duke of Ch'in, the money-hungry tyrant who has dominated much of China for centuries; and various interesting settings and obstacles laid in their way across the land.

What makes the book work is the language and the humor: Li is often quite witty, and the ingenious approaches he takes to their problems are a lot of fun. The story also presents incongruities such as these two odd fellows finagling their way into huge fortunes, which they promptly squander in pursuit of some small piece of their overall goal.

But the book's plot is deceptive in its apparent simplicity, though: Things and people pop up during the book which seem like throwaway elements for background color, but which end up being crucial, and unless one is particularly perceptive, the only clue the reader has is the Duke of Ch'in's comment that Li and Ox are on the right quest for the wrong reasons.

Alexandria Digital Literature has long been highly recommending Bridge of Birds to me as the book it thinks I'm most likely to enjoy. It turned out to have overjudged it somewhat, but it's still a charming, entertaining book. There's not much of traditional western novel elements such as character development, but it's worth a read.

The Story of the Stone

Foundation/Doubleday Books, PB, © 1988, 223 pp
Reviewed October 2001

I took advantage of reading the second and third books in Hughart's China trilogy to re-read Bridge of Birds, and enjoyed it more the second time, as the non-stop adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox really came alive for me, in their full ludicrous ambition, this time. So I felt ready to move on to The Story of the Stone, and was not disappointed.

A decade later, Ox is Master Li's pupil, and one day they are summoned to the Valley of Sorrows to investigate the murder of a monk in an abbey, who died in a locked room when the immense bars on the window were pried apart, and with a look of fear on his face. Tied up in this is a forgery of an ancient document, which is nearly perfect except for some elements which were deliberately added to reveal its forged nature. Moreover, the Valley was once the land of The Laughing Prince, a psychopath who capered and laughed while he experimented on hapless citizens in hopes of advancing medical science. The Prince's mad dancers have been seen lately, but the current Prince, Liu Pao, seems to know nothing about it, being entirely wrapped up in his artistic endeavors.

And so Li and Ox are drawn into a mystery involving an ancient and enchanted stone which the Laughing Prince once possessed, on the trail of the dancers, and along the way they're joined by the beautiful and amnesiac prostitute Grief of Dawn, and her beloved, the exquisite and equally beautiful master of sound Moon Boy.

The Story of the Stone is in some ways more down-to-Earth than Bridge of Birds. The book begins very much in a Sherlock Holmes motif, with Ox faithfully reporting the story and Li at the end of his rope, hoping for a new challenge to come along before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Although much of what we see is amazing, little of it is downright unbelievable; even a lengthy trip to Hell is easily explained as a drug-induced journey through Li's subconscious. Hughart's ability to get away with this is itself artful, although after Bridge, with its rampant use of magic and myth, it seems an odd approach to take. But maybe the contrast is what he was going for.

Anyway, Stone does eventually end up bringing overt magic into it, and it's revealed gradually and comfortably, which is good since the story's resolution depends on it.

As in Bridge, much of the book's approach involves keeping up with Master Li's reasoning process, which is always three or four steps ahead of Ox, and perhaps also the reader. But his explanations are always so charmingly presented that we can forgive him if it seems there's no way we could truly have matched wits with him (or with Hughart's plot). It is a little disappointing that the resolution is just a little too esoteric for us to have anticipated fairly (though we can see that something funny's going on by the way the characters are handled).

But overall it's a romp through ancient China the equal of Bridge of Birds, with the same sarcastic dialogue and humorous characters. Though different in tone in many ways, it's a worthy sequel to its predecessor.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Foundation/Doubleday Books, PB, © 1991, 196 pp
Reviewed October 2001

Eight Skilled Gentlemen, oddly, occurs shortly after Bridge of Birds and therefore about a decade before The Story of the Stone, but it feels like a sequel to them both. Still, in the exotic world of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, one need scarcely worry about such details. This is the third book in the trilogy, and that's enough.

Unlike the first two, here we see Master Li in full regalia, as befits one who was once a bright light of the empire. He (in the company of Ox) is presiding over the execution of a vicious criminal when suddenly a vampire bursts into the courtyard, causing the executioner to miss (and thus the criminal to be - for a time - spared). Although the vampire evaporates in the sunlight, the odd events put Li and Ox on the trail of the eight cages of the Eight Skilled Gentlemen, brothers from long ago who consorted with eight minor demons, and who possessed eight magical cages (like bird-cages) with a mysterious secret.

Li and Ox uncover a clever smuggling ring, meet the talented but scarred puppeteer Yen Shih and his shamanka daughter Yu Lan, talk with the Celestial Master - an aged and wise (but forgetful) sage who had once been a mentor of Master Li's, discover a plot by eight Mandarins of the Emperor, and an even older plot by the lost brother of the demons. The Macguffin of the story, of course, are the eight cages, which Li and Ox stay hot on the trail of but always just a few steps behind the mysterious demons (or their master) who are stealing them and slaughtering the Mandarins.

Gentlemen disappointed me, after the first two volumes. The ongoing chase for the cages seemed like a redux of the quest for the ginseng root in Bridge, and the supporting cast was not nearly as lively as previously. The dialogue is as lively as ever, but the story itself is lacking. The identity of the culprit seems all too obvious (through process of elimination), and it would have been more rewarding had it been someone else. Worst of all, the story ends with a rousing boat race which unfortunately seems altogether pointless; the motivations of the villain seem obscure and unsatisfactory.

It could have been a tighter and more colorful adventure, but in the end it just peters out, and ultimately leaves you wondering about the eventual fate of Li and Ox, our friends for these 600+ pages. But I guess that that, too, doesn't really matter: Heroes like these are eternal.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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