Hughart, Barry: (02) The Story of the Stone

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.

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  1. I just read this for the first time, having read Eight Skilled Gentlemen years ago and Bridge of Birds fewer years ago. The “order you read them in” supposition may be true, once again, because I would rank them 3, 1, 2.

    Part of the reasons I didn’t really care for this installment, though, was that I found the main storyline to be very predictable. The trip to Hell was the part that surprised me, and as with you, delighted me. Very well done, I think.

    I think a re-read of ESG is due, actually.

  2. As I said, some of the plot fixtures do appear repeatedly, and that may well have something to do with it. Maybe it’s for the best that Hughart isn’t writing any more, though I would have liked to see the planned ending: “seven novels ending with my heroes’ deaths in the battle with the Great White Serpent, and their elevation to the Great River of Stars as minor deities guaranteed to cause the August Personage of Jade almost as much trouble as the Stone Monkey.” (via this site (features/interview)).

    Good grief. I’ve just glanced at the original draft of _Bridge of Birds_: it appears to be Master Li’s POV with no Ox! Wow.

  3. I’ve just recently re-read the three books – I had an omnibus edition a few years ago, but lent it to a friend whose neighbors set their apartment on fire, causing extensive damage to my friend’s apartment and possessions, and thus a number of my books that were over there. I managed to get my hands on another omnibus edition at the end of December, yay.
    Anyway – BoB is still my favorite and heads-and-shoulders above the other two. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other two lots – if I’d run across either one of them first, I’d have been out combing the bookstores for more. But BoB actually makes me feel more for and with the characters, and I still get a bit choked up with the layers and layers of over-the-top schmaltz at the end – it doens’t take itself too seriously, so I can be sucked into the ending without going “Oh puh-leez.”
    Anyway, after reading all three in a row, what strikes me is that BoB is very much closer to a fairy tale in its language and in its repetition of events and its structural elements, and the other two are more prosaic, despite the presence of otherworldly creatures and events. And that’s why I like it better, because books, movies, and TV that manage to evoke the numinous for me are always my favorite. (That’s why Spirited Away is much more my favorite than Princess Mononoke, despite them both being primarily otherworldly.)

  4. Their _neighbors_ set their apartment on fire? Wow, that sucks.
    What you say about the fairy tales is interesting; my memory is that the second and third bring the mystery/procedural element more strongly to the front, which may play into this somewhat. Maybe next time I can’t figure out what I want to read, I’ll dig these out.

  5. It was accidental – the neighbors had been cooking breakfast and a grease fire occurred somehow, and instead of smothering the flames, they turned the vent fan on, which sucked the flames up. Wouldn’t ahve been much of a problem except that the apartments weren’t built to code, so the fans vented into the wall instead of through a metal duct to the outside, so the walls got set on fire on the inside. My friends woke up to smoke pouring out of their AC vent, and were able to grab the pet rat and the CPUs before getting out of there.
    The really lucky part, besides them not dying, was that they were in the process of moving to another apartment, and had their most important stuff moved already, and a lot of the not-so-important stuff.
    Re: the book, yeah, I think the mystery/procedural stuff coming to the forefront is part of why they’re so prosaic.

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