Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

The Story of the Stone is the second installment of Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. It continues shortly after Bridge of Birds, though I don't believe you need to read them in order as the events of each are completely independent of one another. As before, the novel takes elements of Chinese history and myth and blends them together with a lot of fantasy. In this book, we get to see references to Prince Liu Sheng, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, and the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, among many others.

Below follows my full review.

Overall Impression
This was another good book in the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. If the first book felt like a blend of Sherlock Holmes with Alice in Wonderland, this one feels like a blend of Sherlock Holmes with The Divine Comedy, in particular, Inferno. Of course, both books also are heavily steeped in Chinese mythology, which gives them an exotic feel most modern fantasies lack. The story was not as easy to follow as the first one, though it could be a result of the longer time I took to read it. The characters are just as cool as in Bridge of Birds.

The plot seemed a bit more scattered than the first book, though this could be because I took some long breaks while reading it. Everything starts with a forged manuscript and a murder in the Valley of Sorrows, which then escalates into what appears to be supernatural forces. It's interesting that while in a normal detective novel, some mysteries seem to be the result of magic (though they clearly aren't), here the characters have very clear, logical, and non-magical explanations for the mysterious events. It should come as no surprise, though, that these don't pan out and more exotic things need to be considered. As the story progresses we get other characters joining the party and explore a few other parts of the world, such as Ch'ang-an (Xi'an), Chao (Later Zhao) and Hell.

The story revolves around the mystery behind a Stone referenced in the Laughing Prince's chambers. This Stone has great powers, but is missing. While the characters go on various adventures, they keep coming back to the story of the Stone and wondering about it. At one point, Master Li pretty much summarizes the frame story of the Dream of the Red Chamber and, from what I can tell, it's pretty much the same as found in that work. This mythic tale behind the Stone is one of the key plot points of the novel, though the connections are not always clear until the very end.

As before, we follow the adventures of Master Li and his apprentice, and former employer, Number Ten Ox. Throughout their journey, they are joined by other characters such as Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn. Each character has their moment to shine depending on the nature of the situation. A mental puzzle? Master Li saves the day! A wall blocks the way? Ox and his incredible strength clears a path! And so forth and so forth. This makes all the characters feel like integral members of a team. Furthermore, as before, the author takes the time to craft unique and interesting stories behind the secondary characters helping bring them to life.

One of the villains is the Laughing Prince, Liu Sheng, who governed the valley (and performed notorious experiments) 750 years before the present time in the novel. It turns out that Liu Sheng is based on a real person. While in real life he may not have been known as the Laughing Prince and wasn't involved in the sinister schemes of the novel, his family ties are the same and apparently he is well known for the jade burial suits as both he and his wife were encased in them (in real life and the novel).

Setting / World Building
The setting is that of a mythical China, as for the prior novel. We still find magic merged with elements associated with traditional China. It's a very cool blend as most standard fantasy books revolve around more European settings. I've mentioned some of the obvious ones in this blog post, but there are many tiny details mentioned briefly in the story that have reflections in real-world China.

One of the coolest places we see in the book is the Chinese version of hell or the underworld. At one point in the story, the characters enter this realm to get more information despite the dangers to them. This feels like a bit of The Divine Comedy as the characters slowly progress deeper and deeper. There are descriptions of all the various levels and their punishments, as well as some names of people who have to spend time there. At the end, rather than a frozen prison, we see the Great Wheel of Transmigration, which is used for souls to be reborn (and as a convenient escape from hell!). This journey was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Final Thoughts
This was a great book and I would highly recommend it. It's a clever take on fantasy tales and draws from Chinese myth, which most Western readers may not be familiar with. The characters are excellent and the author places them in comical and exciting adventures. The humor in the novel is well-placed and brilliantly executed as well, making it a happy novel to read. I will certainly be reading the third and final novel of the series.

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