Hughart, Barry: (01-03) Bridge of Birds, Story of the Stone, Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Last time I read a Barry Hughart novel, I theorized that the later books were darker than the first, which was one reason I liked them less (in addition to the standard plot pattern having become obvious by that point). Re-reading all three bears that out.

The last and my least favorite, Eight Skilled Gentlemen, is not only darkest—structured around a series of gruesome murders and with little in the way of interesting characters or humorous touches—but the clumsiest, with the inexplicable additional property of the cages and the character who is introduced at very nearly the last moment.

Story of the Stone still has a great deal of charm, as I said in my last reading of it, but Bridge of Birds is still by far the best of them, with recurring jokes (“What have you done with my X?!”), a wider cast of characters, and a sweeter and more joyous leap into the mythic. I’m sorry that I won’t get to see the end Hughart had in mind for the characters, but if the books were going to continue in this pattern, I don’t regret missing the books along the way.

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  1. I entirely agree.
    It doesn’t help the book that, as far as I know, Hughart made up the central mystical stuff.
    In Bridge of Birds he borrows a lot from actual Chinese history and mythology, including the whole bit with the cyclical goddess (he refers obliquely to the original version of this story at one point). Where he does invent something out of whole cloth (e.g., the Sword Dance), it’s important but not central to the plot, and he does a good job.
    In The Story of the Stone he borrows a lot from the Chinese novel of the same name, which unfortunately means that the central mystical elements get more abstruse than they are in the first book. Still he does well enough with everything.
    In Eight Skilled Gentlemen, he borrows, but I think he invents too much and doesn’t do a good job of it. Of all the stuff central to the resolution, the poems are the only element I can identify (they’re from the Classic of Poetry) – the cages, the monsters associated with the cages, the boat race, etc. all appear to be original*. Originality is of course a fine thing in a fantasy novel, but I think he came up with something way too complicated for his purposes.
    * Note that I’m not an expert on Chinese literature or mysticism, so if I am wrong about this, please feel free to correct me.

  2. Dan, I know even less than you, but that’s interesting about the books’ structures, and makes sense to me.

  3. Dragon boat racing has been done in China for millennia. Hughart took the central myth and changed it to suit his purposes, but the practice is thoroughly Chinese. There’s a fairly extensive Wikipedia article on it that gets me blocked as a spammer when I try to link it, so you’ll have to look it up yourself. 🙂

  4. Thanks. Testing the link, since I’m not sure why it’s being blocked:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_boat

  5. Thanks.
    Looking at the article, I think the book would have been more interested had he focused on the “real” origins of the races (i.e., any of the competing theories that actually have some evidence behind them) and fleshed them out. (I suppose that could be what he did, but that he just made a lot of changes.)

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