I don’t like Barry Hughart’s second novel, The Story of the Stone, as well as I like his first, Bridge of Birds; I also don’t like the third, Eight Skilled Gentlemen, as well as the second. Some have suggested that one prefers Hughart’s novels in the order one reads them, which would be one explanation, but I’m not so sure about that. It’s true that part of the charm is the novelty, and as the series goes on, one begins to see some plot patterns.
However, I always think of the later books as being darker than the first, and this re-read supports that. In Bridge of Birds, Master Li and Number Ten Ox are trying to rescue the children of Ox’s village from a mysterious illness; in this book, our odd pair are asked to solve a mysterious murder, the partial destruction of a valley, and the apparent resurrection of a madman. I didn’t re-read Bridge of Birds, so I can’t be certain whether they also encounter much more creepy stuff along the way, but I have the distinct impression that they do.
There are certainly lovely bits here, most notably the extended scene where Master Li takes Ox and a companion to the Temple of Illusion for a trip into Hell. Ox, the narrator, treats it as an actual trip, and thus the reader tends to do the same; but I particularly like how Master Li consistently speaks of it, after they emerge, as an exploration of his inner mind. There’s also cheerful depictions of homosexuality and polyamory, making this an unexpectedly timely read. And I’m always glad to have Ox’s company.
I was in a rotten mood last week when I picked this up, and while it’s not as perfectly cheering a read as Bridge of Birds, it’s not half bad either. Unfortunately, I think it’s gone out of print again: all three had been reprinted in an omnibus from the sf store Stars Our Destination, but I assume that with the store’s folding, it’s not going to continue to be printed. Fortunately, Bridge of Birds remains in print from Del Rey.