Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

This is, as the subtitle rightly states, "A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was." It is part of a short series of books relating the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox and are collected in a single volume on the Kindle store. It reminded me at parts of Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland as the characters travel to exotic and magical places meeting extraordinary characters all in order to solve the mysteries of ancient China.
‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei—which means “dry cup”—and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

Read on for my full review (spoiler-free).

Overall Impression
I very much liked this book. It was a fun read throughout with a lighthearted comical touch to it. Master Li is a wise sage that is hired by Number Ten Ox to investigate a mysterious plague that has fallen on his village. This leads them on a wild adventure all across China. The story draws heavily from Chinese legends and folklore giving it a classical feel. In the end, it's a fantasy tale that reads like a retelling of old myths.

The story follows a pattern similar to a standard detective novel. A plague has affected the children of a small village and Number Ten Ox, so named for being strong and the 10th child of a family, is sent to find someone who can help them. He finds the legendary scholar Li Kao, drunk and thirsty for more wine. Despite Li Kao's flaws he turns out to be just what is needed to unravel the mystery behind the plague and together they set out to find the Great Root of Power. This takes Master Li and Number Ten Ox to many fascinating places and it becomes an even greater adventure than what they anticipated.

Later on in the story you may remark on some of the amazing coincidences that start happening. However, unlike other books that ignore it, Bridge of Birds put a light on it and the characters themselves question it. We are given a satisfactory explanation for all this in a way that further cements the nature of the novel.

There are many characters throughout the book, but really only two main ones:
“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. Everyone calls me Number Ten Ox,” I said. 
“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character”

In a sense, you could think of Li Kao as Sherlock and Lu Yu as his trusty sidekick Watson. Number Ten Ox is the muscle in the team, but Li Kao is the brains. Not that Ox is dumb by any measure, just that he isn't as learned and scholarly as Master Li. Li constantly refers to his one flaw, though he is never specific about which one it is. We also don't know how old he is, though he frequently refers to "if only I were 90 again". The dynamic between the two characters is excellent, as are the comical situations they frequently get into.

Other notable characters are the Duke of Ch'in, Lotus Cloud, Key Rabbit, Henpecked Ho, Miser Chen, and the Ancestress. Interestingly, a lot of the minor characters are very well described as Hughart spends at least a few paragraphs on each given them unique backstories. This makes his world feel vivid and intricate as you read through it.

Setting / World Building
This is part of a genre of books known as chinoiserie or orientalist. That is, it takes elements of China or Oriental cultures and incorporates them into the story. This is also common in art and architecture, as you may notice in many major (western) cities. Anyways, this story is set in China and has plenty of references to Chinese culture such as the August Personage of Jade (ie, the Jade Emperor, the first god), the Moon Festival, Sword Dancing, and the fascination with ginseng, which itself is a major plot element in the story.

There are also some historical characters that appear, though changed to fit the story. Chief among these is the main antagonist, the Duke of Ch'in (Qin Shi Huang). Curiously, he was also mentioned in a recent episode of Cosmos as well, so it stuck with me. This is the first emperor of China in the sense that he conquered the various warring states at the time and unified them together. He instituted legalism, banning and burning books that disagreed with his policies, and ordered the construction of the Terracotta Army, among many other things. In the novel, he is always referred to as the Duke of Ch'in, so I don't know if he was meant to be the emperor, but the burning of books as well as his search for immortality is mentioned and used as a plot device. I get the feeling that Hughart's Duke is inspired by Huangdi, but taking it to completely different directions to serve as a better antagonist.

Final Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a lighthearted fun tale told in an intriguing setting with some fascinating characters. I look forward to continuing the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. I do wonder: is the tale of the Princess of Birds and the Star Shepherd a real legend in ancient China or is it completely made up?

Unfortunately, I've learned that the author discontinued the books after having trouble with publishers. Each of the 3 books can stand on it's own so it's not really a trilogy or series, but there was a reference in Bridge of Birds to an adventure they would have but that never got written. Nevertheless, I would still highly recommend this book to anyone interesting in some lighthearted fantasy with a hint of China.

UPDATE: The legend of the Bridge of Birds is based on a real Chinese myth, though the story (and its variants) is significantly different: the Weaver Girl and the Cowheard. There are enough similarities that you can identify the myth, but I think the one told by Hughart is more entertaining.


  1. Thanks. I've eyed this series a few times. Tie recent review on good reads convinced me. Books are on order.

  2. This has always been one of my favorite books. I am glad to see it getting a wider readership. Thank you for your review.

  3. I love the your comparison with Sherlock and Alice in Wonder Land - very true indeed! I have also reviewed this book on my blog recently, I thought it was wonderful and truly original.