Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: Eight Skilled Gentlemen by Barry Hughart

Eight Skilled Gentleman is the third installment of Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. It follows from the prior books, but an indeterminate amount of time has passed. As before, the novel takes elements of Chinese history and myth and blends them together with a lot of fantasy and a detective-style story.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This was another good book in the series. It has many similarities in style to the prior books in the series, though the Chinese myths it touches on are different. According to the author, one of the reasons why this is the final book in the series (besides some serious publication problems) is that it started to get repetitive and I can agree with that. Yes, the characters are good and the plot engaging, but the overarching framework is the same as the prior two novels and the pattern is set in stone now. As such, this novel does not feel as unique or fun as the prior two.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen follows in the style of the prior novels. Master Li and Ox are called into action when a vampire interrupts an execution in Peking. A cursory investigation leads them to suspect the hushed-up death of a mandarin and as they investigate the circumstances, the situation quickly escalates. What starts as a simple murder investigation becomes an incredible tale as ancient myths and legends of Chinese folklore come to life.

There are plenty of humorous moments throughout the story, as well as grotesque and unbelievable ones. As in prior books, there is a brief romance between Ox and some of the female characters, but it's not as prevalent as in the others. There are also many supernatural events in the story as myths become reality, but these don't feel quite as impactful as the prior novels. Maybe it's because the setting primarily takes place in a big city as opposed to, say, journeys through the underworld.

As in the other books in the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, the primary characters are, of course, Master Li and Number Ten Ox. In this occasion, they are joined by the puppeteer Yen Shih and his shamanka daughter Yu Lan. Together, they interact with other notable characters like the Celestial Master Chang Tao-ling and Hosteler Tu as they investigate the death of the mandarin Ma Tuan Lin and a mysterious set of cages. The characters have humorous quirks that make them memorable, but the cast feels a bit smaller this time around.

Setting / World Building
The story takes place in an ancient China that never was and primarily in Peking and the Forbidden City. As in the prior stories, there are plenty of elements of Chinese culture and mythology packed into the story. The title refers to the Eight Immortals in Chinese legends, though as far as I can tell the role they play in is somewhat limited to the setup or framework of the story. There's also mentions of the Dragon Boat Festival, tales of ghosts and the hun and po souls of all people, the balance of yin and yang, and, of course, gods and demons.

An interesting aspect is that part of the folklore comes from pre-Chinese times (according to Wikipedia) and involve older gods and deities rather than the more "common" deities in Chinese mythology. Some spoilers ahead. The story tells of the offspring of a god and a human girl: eight demon-deities and single human. The human eventually courts Hsi Wang Mu, the great and terrible Lady-Queen of the West, the Patron of Pestilence as she was known before being incorporated into the Chinese pantheon. As a result of him eating one of her Peaches he gains immortality, but he and this two children, Malice and Madness, end up cursed. The demons, the man (Envy), and his children are all key to the story, but only near the very end do we see all the connections in place.

Final Thoughts
Overall, the book was good, but not great. It's certainly an enjoyable read with fun characters and events and a worthy addition to the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. However, the overall framework of the story is a bit repetitive, particularly coming after The Story of the Stone. The mythology in it is quite interesting, but it doesn't feel like it got a detailed enough look and even felt a little rushed in the end. The end of the novel itself also feels a bit abrupt. If you enjoyed the other books in the series, you should give this one a try. If you haven't read any, the best (and only) place to start is Bridge of Birds.

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