Bridge of Birds
by Barry Hughart
A clever fantasy set in a magic-drenched version of Tang dynasty China, Hughart’s book is an excellent and intricate romp through folklore, pseudo-myth, and history alongside two memorable characters: Number Ten Ox, who was given the number because he is a tenth-born son and the name because of his strength and wit, and Master Li, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they find their way through an adventure filled with the supernatural, and narrow escapes, and beautiful noblewomen, and jealous husbands, and, importantly, a real sense of wonder.
The book works partly because of the intricacy of its plot, and partly because of that wonder, that ability to capture the true feel of a folk-tale. It is, precisely, folkloric rather than mythic. It has the coldness and occasional incidental brutality of a folk-jest, and makes scenes that might be difficult to take (Master Li, as noted, has that slight flaw in his character) somehow palatable by sheer tonal accuracy. And yet, intriguingly, for all that it captures that fokloric tone, it also has a highly-worked plot, a clever and complex structure which binds together the many tales Ox and Li encounter.
Oh, and it also has a sly deadpan voice. Ox presents himself as an intellectually humble man, and in comparison to the brilliant Master Li he may be; but this is exactly the Holmes/Watson relationship, where the narrator is cleverer than might at first appear. This is fine stuff, and I’ve already got one of the sequels. Kudos to Jen Eveleigh Lamond for recommending it to me.