Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Bridge of Birds

Barry Hughart
Completed 12/1/2021, Reviewed 12/1/2021
5 stars

Interesting change of pace.  This book is subtitled by Hughart as “A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was”.  It’s a quest story in which mythology and fairy tales play a key role.  I don’t know much about Chinese fairy tales and mythology, so I don’t know if the fairy tales are close to actual ones, or if they are all made up.  But it is a marvelous book, where the protagonist is confronted with these tales and tries to put together a solution to a mystery that will save a village full of children and right an ancient wrong.  This book won both the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards in ‘85-‘86. 

The story begins with a young man nicknamed Number Ten Ox.  In his village there is a plague that is only affecting 8– to 14-year-olds.  He is sent to Peking to find a scholar who can figure out the cause.  The only one he can afford is Master Li, a drunk old man.  Ox brings Li back, who determines the cause but the only antedote is the Great Root of Power.  Ox and Li go on a quest to find it.  On the way, they begin to unravel the mystery of a princess and a beggar, the tale of which seems to hold the key to finding the Root.  At each step of the way, they come across tales of magic and deceit that harken back to fairy tales and involve a few of the many gods of China.  

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  I’m not a huge fan of Asian mythology, probably because I have almost no experience with it, and there are so many gods.  So a fantasy rooted in it seemed daunting.  However, this book is a hoot, despite beginning on a somber note.  Ox and the perpetually drinking Master Li are a great duo with Li being the brains and Ox being the brawn.  They race across China over and over gathering tales and strange small artifacts.  Of course, they constantly get into trouble, but always have amazing and humorous escapes.  

The worldbuilding is wonderful.  Hughart creates a fantastic ancient China filled with gods, ghosts, monsters, and very colorful characters who help and/or hinder Ox and Master Li.  My favorite monster was the invisible crawling hand.  My favorite colorful character was Henpecked Ho.  You have to read the novel to learn about them, though.  To describe them gives away plot and motivation.  The prose was also scrumptious without being overbearing.  It took me a little longer to read this book than my last several reads, despite being on vacation.  I found that this book could not be read too quickly.  The story and descriptions need to be savored.  

I’m giving this book five stars out of five.  This is unusual for me in that I normally give this score to a book that nearly moves me to tears, or creates a strong emotional reaction.  This book didn’t exactly, but the story was so great and it put me in such a pleasant headspace that I didn’t want it to end.  The book and its sequels have been compared to Terry Pratchett, and I would agree.  It’s subtly and sometimes sarcastically funny, but not guffaw funny.  It will leave you with a big ol’ smile on your face.  It’s not in e-book format and I don’t know how available it is.  I had to get it from interlibrary loan.  But it was well worth tracking down.

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