Review: Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

"Take a large bowl. Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei—which means 'dry cup'—and drink to the dregs."

"And I will be wise?"

"Better. You will be Chinese."

—Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds, "a novel of an ancient China that never was," is an utterly delightful and charming comic fantasy. The narrator, Number Ten Ox, lives a quiet life in a rural village until the day a mysterious plague strikes the children of his village. Setting off to Peking to find a wise man, he encounters Li Kao, a sage with a "slight flaw in his character." Searching for a cure, they become entangled in a mystery that takes them across China and into encounters with ghosts, deities, giant invisible spiders, the wisest man in the world, and the most expensive woman in the world—just to name a few.

This book is funny, sweet, and has some truly wonderful (that is, both terrific and full of wonder) moments. Master Li, though possessing more than a few flaws in his character, is just the guide for an adventure like this, and the good-hearted, slightly naive Ox is the perfect foil. Toss in folktales, running gags, memorable supporting characters, poignant moments, and a general atmosphere of warmth and humor, and the result is one of the few books I would never go anywhere without.

Li Kao chewed thoughtfully on his beard, and then he said,

"Ho, Ox and I are wrapped in so many chains that we can't move, you are attached to the wall by a leg chain, this dungeon is solid rock, the torture chamber is crammed with soldiers, we are eleven stories beneath the earth, and each landing is guarded by more soldiers. The palace is swarming with the army of the Ancestress, the army of the Duke of Ch'in is camped outside the walls, and Ox and I must escape from here immediately. Unless you look forward to being drawn and quartered, I suggest that you accompany us."

"I think that's a splendid idea," said Henpecked Ho.

[There are two sequels which I also recommend, though not as highly, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. These were recently brought back into print when The Stars Our Destination published an omnibus of all three novels. Bridge of Birds is still available separately.]

%T  Bridge of Birds
%A  Hughart, Barry
%C  New York
%I  Del Rey
%D  1984
%G  0-345-32138-3
%P  278pp
%O  paperback

Copyright May 12, 1999 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written

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