Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

bridge-of-birds-by-barry-hughartGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1989
Reviewer Rating: fourstars
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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For some little time a top-recommended book for me has been Bridge of Birds. As it was published in 1984, I was somewhat skeptical of my ability to find it: however it is still in print and I was able to find a copy. This is a very fine novel, charming, amusing, moving, often strikingly beautiful, often rather horrifyingly bloody.

The story is a fantasy set in Ancient China, at a time roughly corresponding to the 7th century AD, best I can tell. The narrator is Lu Yu (not to be confused with the author of The Classic of Tea), who is usually called Number Ten Ox. The story opens with the yearly silkworm spinning at Number Ten Ox’ home village: but instead of the bounteous harvest of silk the villagers expect, all the silkworms have died: much worse, soon the children of the village are afflicted with a terrible plague. The locals can do nothing for the children, so they send Number Ten Ox to Peking to find an expert. But they have miscalculated the expense of expert help, and the only expert they can afford is Li Kao, Master Li, who has a slight flaw in his character.

Master Li and Number Ten Ox are soon off on a series of searches, from end to end of China, trying to find the Great Root of Power, which may be the key to a cure for the children. Along the way they encounter gods and goddesses, monsters and ghosts, wise men and terrible tyrants. At first the book seems to be fairly unstructured, though continually entertaining, collection of escapades. However, an underlying structure emerges, in the form of an old legend, and a children’s rhyme and game. By the end, Master Li and Number Ten Ox find that much more is at stake than the fate of the children of the village. In particular, Number Ten Ox’ attitude is well-depicted: throughout his adventures, he thinks always of the children, in a true-feeling and very affecting way.

The resolution to the story is very satisfying, and also beautifully depicted. Puzzles are solved, emotional knots untangled, ghosts set free, tyrants deposed, and all is neatly unified. At the simplest level the book is an always amusing, often very funny, light fantasy: at another level it achieves real emotional power. It is also an astonishingly bloody book, but somehow we care and even mourn for the many victims even while the tone remains light. In passages the prose achieves real beauty, in particular a prayer which Hughart adapted from a Chinese source, and also the description of the bridge of birds. I recommend this lovely fantasy very highly.

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