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Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox) Mass Market Paperback – April 12, 1985
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
Bridge of Birds is a lyrical fantasy novel. Set in "an Ancient China that never was", it stands with The Princess Bride and The Last Unicorn as a fairy tale for all ages, by turns incredibly funny and deeply touching. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1985, and Hughart produced two sequels: The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. All present the adventures of Master Kao Li, a scholar with "a slight flaw in [his] character", and Lu Yu, usually called Number Ten Ox, his sidekick and the story's narrator. Number Ten Ox is strong, trusting, and pure of heart; Master Li once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine, because "I was trying to win a bet concerning the intelligence of emperors."
Number Ten Ox comes from a village in which the children have been struck by a mysterious illness. He recruits Master Li to find the cure and comes along to provide muscle. They seek a mysterious Great Root of Power, which may be a form of ginseng. Of course, nothing turns out to be as simple as it seems; great wrongs must be avenged and lovers separated must be reunited, from the most humble to the highest. And even in the midst of cosmic glory, Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub are picking the pockets of their own lynch mob, who are frozen in awe and wonder. --Nona Vero
From the Inside Flap
When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox found master Li Kao. Together they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure, and together they discover adventure and legend, and the power of belief....
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Anyone who has read anything about the myths and folklore of ancient China will probably be struck by how unimaginably weird it is to Western eyes and well primed for someone to take it and write a fantasy novel like all the strangeness is very commonplace. To that end Hughart bills his novel as taking place in "an ancient China that never was" and features as his narrator Number Ten Ox, a young man from a small village that finds life as magically ordinary as life can be . . . until the day when a plague renders all the children catatronic with death as an eventual endpoint and leaving the adults torn between enjoying the sudden peace and quiet and wanting to cure the kids. Desperate, Number Ten Ox sets out for Peking to find a wise man that can help them. Of course, that should translate as "wise man they can afford" and that winds up being Master Li, a very old wise man with a self-admitted "slight flaw in his character", which you can interpret as he likes to drink or that while possessed of a firm sense of right and wrong, he's sometimes ethically flexible on how he gets there. Sounds like a good start to a quest!
And what a rambling quest it is. The actual goal is to score a special ginseng called The Great Root but boy howdy even for a book under three hundred pages they take their sweet time getting there. I haven't read a lot of Chinese literature but I've read Western authors that are influenced by it and one aspect that will be clear very early on is that the book isn't quite interested in telling a linear Point A to Point B story, instead having the characters wander from location to location while hearing stories and solving mini-problems along the way. Its a novel of seeming tangents and digressions and for those not really attuned to that style of writing it can seem like it bogs the pace down quite a bit as our heroes may spend several chapters learning about and then dealing with a ghost problem, or watching Number Ten Ox pursue a lady who really likes when people buy her stuff and has a coward for a husband. And that's not even counting the spooky handmaidens that keep showing up in the best tradition of Asian horror movies.
All these little sidetracks and side stories and false starts seem like an author indulging in his favorite culture, like he's engaged in a contest with himself to prove he can out-Chinese actual Chinese folklore. But if you stick with it the tone of the book starts to get under your skin, especially because it never settles for too long on a single mood, making it hard to pigeonhole. Number Ten Ox and Master Li could be comedic characters and they get involved in a lot of escapades but there are also quite a few moments of brutal violence (a parade of people being beheaded, for one) and a number of gut-wrenching stories, from the aforementioned ghost to the miser's tragic tale, to the stories of the Princess of Birds herself and after a while you start getting the feeling that this isn't just a collection of random takes on Chinese literature but its all connected somehow.
When all those connections finally collide the book shifts gears emotionally something fierce, attaining a degree of lyricism that wouldn't be possible without the tapestry that's been already laid out, suddenly arcing into a tremendously moving and affecting climax that ensures everyone gets what they deserve as our heroes don't quite achieve the victory they were looking for and still win anyway. Its like hearing an orchestra playing different notes at different times in opposite corners of the room . . . separately they may strike an emotional chord, maybe two, but when they suddenly all play together you can hear the full range of the symphony and realize what they were trying to say all along.
Not too many people could stick that ending without coming across as extremely manipulative and to Hughart's credit the result does feel earned. Concerned with hobbits and dryads running their own dive bars, there aren't going to be too many fantasy novels like this one, where the gods are as real as they need to be and everything happens for a reason. It won the World Fantasy Award (shared with, of all things, "Mythago Wood") but doesn't seem that well known today, not quite falling into total obscurity where its just about to be rediscovered but instead sort of existing in plain sight without really calling attention to itself. Hughart wanted to write several more adventures with Number Ten Ox and Master Li and indeed managed two more before falling out with his publishers and ceasing to write entirely (although he appears to have later commented if he wrote too many more he would have started repeating himself). They remain today as one of the fantasy's more interesting tangents, not quite a new road but a little hollow where you can linger and rest a bit, staying just long enough so you can leave to see how different everything else now looks.
But the book is more than that: it is also philosophical, with the light touch of the philosophical fiction of Voltaire (Works of Voltaire. 20 works. Candide, Zadig, Philosophical Dictionary, selected poetry & more or Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog. For instance: "There is more than one kind of wisdom," the book says, "there is wisdom to take and there is wisdom to give, and there is wisdom of heaven that is inscrutable to man."
It is also a delightfully funny book. It is hard to resist a hero who has "a slight flaw in his character." Specially if you are misled into believing that you know what the flaw is. There is a person who thinks that it is better to be Chinese than to be wise, and a character who says that it was quite a shock for him to discover that "crime was so easy that it was boring." At any page, you think that you get what the story is about, what the writer is about, and you are surprised because both the writer and the story turn out to be, again, unexpected.
If you are like some of us, and you have a slight flaw in your character as well, you will be delighted by the book. If not, the perfect book for you probably is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. It is excellent, it has legend and courage and it is entertaining, but it does not bite you back like the Bridge of Birds.