Barry Hughart


Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (1984), The Story of the Stone (1988), Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991)


Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (1984)

I have a weakness for fantasy novels set in Asia–especially those set in ancient China. So when I saw Bridge of Birds on the shelf I immediately snatched it up.

A strange malady has struck the children of the village of Ku-fu. As the silkworms the village depends upon for survival are discovered dead, the children of the village fall into a strange coma and cannot be awakened. Number Ten Ox (Yu Lu), an orphan who lives with his Aunt and Uncle in relative happiness, sets out to find someone who can cure the children. This places him on the path of adventure where he meets (among others) master Li Kao, who is as much trickster was wise man.

As one who loves folk tales, I found this story almost irresistible. It was filled with characters and scenarios that felt exactly like those found in folk tales and old stories. There is also humor ranging from the subtle to the outrageous (some of the subtle humor reminded me of parts of Steven Brust’s Phoenix Guards while the outrageous humor was just… silly.)

The story ranges all over the land, and Yu Lu and Li Kao meet many fantastic and amazing characters, including the miser, the scholar, and the beautiful woman.

This book is written like a folk tale, and like many folk tales in their original form, are not necessarily suitable for young children. There is sex and death and trickery and heroism. It also wanders about the land, just like Yu Lu and Li Kao, sometimes stopping to take detours and point out strange landmarks and people.

But mostly, the story is a fun romp in the style of a folk tale, that on many levels rings true to many different kinds of folktales.

It looks as though this was originally a trilogy, and is now being re-released. I look forward to seeing the next two books in publication.
Rating: 9/10

The Story of the Stone (1988)

Master Li has taken Number Ten Ox on as his assistant.

The Abbot of the monastery of the Valley of Sorrows comes to Master Li asking for help resolving the unexpected death of his librarian, and the strange dead spots in the Valley. Along the way they meet the Grief of Dawn and Moon Boy, who may be able to help them solve the mystery.

First, there are plenty of passages that make me laugh, such as the vendors selling worms to the fishermen.

“Worms!” cried the vendors. “Take pity upon poor helpless worms, most unfairly condemned to death upon hooks!”

Second, there is the description of Hell.

I’ve been a fan of Liz Williams‘ Detective Inspector Chen series for quite awhile. This is the first time I’ve come across a similar Hell (though there are many differences between the two). And I love the following description.

The world is a cube measuring 233,575 paces across. The center of the cube is occupied by the Kingdom of Hell, and it is the judging place for all mortals, saint and sinner alike. That is why people on the wrong sides of the cube don’t fall off: We are all drawn toward our ultimate destination so no matter where one stands, Hell is always “down” and Heaven is always “up,” and that’s all there is to it.

Now I have just the third and final book in the series to read. Alas.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Subterranean Press

Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991)

This is the third and final book in the Master Li and Number Ten Ox trilogy. I’m a little sad to see it end, but it was quite enjoyable.

Oddly, the passages that caught my attention in this book weren’t the funny ones, but the ones that related to other recent discussions.

“Both the I-ching and the Huai-nan-tzu assert that natural disasters are not caused by heaven, but allowed by Heaven. If men wllfully disrupt the natural order of things,the gods will refuse to intervene while nature purges itself of the toxin, usually violently, and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty–well the only way men learn anything is to have it smashed into their heads with an ax.”

Feels more like something from Martin Luther than from China.

And then there is this:

Old P’i-pao-ku, “Leatherbag Bone,” was Mrs. Wu’s grandmother, and she was waiting at the confectioner’s to get hard sugar decorations of the five poisonous insects (centipede, scorpion, lizard, toad, snake) to spread over top of her wu tu po po cake, which she would purposely make as inedible as possible without being actually deadly. Every family member eats a slice on the fifth day of the fifth moon, and sickness demons stare at people capable of eating stuff like that and go elsewhere.

Well. That explains some things.

Was this as good as The Bridge of Birds? Maybe not. But it was still good, and quite fun, and I highly recommend the series.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Subterranean Press