Everything but the wire-fu: Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds
I first about Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds some years ago, probably mentioned in passing on RPG.net or somesuch. However, I’d never been able to find the book in person in a bookstore, or even at a library. So, while making an order for some stuff on amazon.com, I figured ‘what the hell’ and added it to my basket so I had enough to get free shipping.
Having just finished the book, I really wish I’d read this book sooner. I don’t know if it’s the best novel I’ve read all year, but it’s definitely up there.
Bridge of Birds is a fantasy novel- albeit one set in “an Ancient China That Never Was,” according to the cover blurb. Like The Throne of the Crescent Moon, Bridge of Birds‘ setting is quite refreshing for being something other than ye olde dwarves and elves and such. It’s ostensibly set during the beginning of the Tang dynasty, but it mostly reads as the nebulous period of Chinese history when a whole bunch of kickass kung fu movies take place. Given how much I dig a good wuxia flick, I ate this up like so much delicious candy. In the best of all possible worlds, Tsui Hark would direct the Bridge of Birds movie.
The story starts fairly straightforward, and spirals out of control from there. When the children of his village are struck with a mysterious illness, good-hearted peasant Number Ten Ox hires on Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character, to save them. And so, the two of them set out on a quest that takes them back and forth across mythic China, where they cross paths with corrupt merchants, maiden ghosts, deranged alchemists, evil immortals, and various terrible monsters. (No hopping vampires, however, but maybe they show up in later books).
Li Kao’s slight flaw in his character is the fact that he’s basically China’s greatest con-man and thief, which leads him into (and out of) all kinds of trouble. Li Kao is a wonderful character; ancient, irreverent, brilliant, and frequently hilarious.
Hughart writes with a very wry, semi-formal tone, reminiscent of Mark Twain or Voltaire (the French one, not the goth comedian singer), or maybe even a less English Terry Pratchett. And despite the whacky adventures, Hughart interweaves moments of genuine pathos into the book as well. The chapter “A Prayer to Ah Chen,” is particularly tragic.
The book is structured fairly simply; most chapters follow an episodic ‘Get from point A to B, add complications to taste,’ formula. Given that this is Hughart’s first novel, it’s not too terribly surprising. Then again, this also adds to the fairy-tale-ish feel of the book, particularly in later chapters, so one could argue he did it on purpose.
Bridge of Birds isn’t without its flaws. There’s the aforementioned episodic structure. Also, the book fails the Bedchel test pretty hard. Almost every woman character in the book is either a shrieking harridan or a distressed damsel. One could argue that this stems from Hughart mimicking old Chinese novels, which probably weren’t very gender-progressive either. I wouldn’t say this excuses it, but it’s something to watch out for, if nothing else.
In my pre-review research (read: skimming Wikipedia), I learned Hughart originally intended to write seven books starring Li Kao and Number Ten Ox, but due to him getting jerked around by his publisher, he only wound up writing three. More’s the pity; I’m looking forward to tracking down and reading his next two novels, but I would love to read even more. I can be kind of greedy when it comes to entertainment I like.
It’s a slight flaw in my character.