the Little Red Reviewer

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Posted on: October 22, 2014

bridge of birdsBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

published in 1984

where I got it: purchased new

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In a rural village in the shadow of the Tang dynasty, the parents are all weeping.

 

They weep because their children lie dying from a mysterious illness. A matriarch of the village gives her life savings to their strongest young man, Number Ten Ox, and tells him to go to the city and purchase the services of a wise Sage, for certainly a learned man can divine the reason for the children’s plague and help develop a cure.  Number Ten Ox is soon to discover that a peasants fortune doesn’t go very far in the city.   However, he returns with Master Li Kao, who is able to understand how the children became sick, and give instructions regarding the herbs needed to cure them.  Knowing what they need, the elderly Master Li climbs onto the back of Number Ten Ox, and across China they go.

 

 

 

They rather quickly find the first portion of the cure, and set out immediately for the rest. One clue leads to another, each adventure feeding into the next. Stealing money (to fund their quest, of course) from a corrupt business owner leads to tricking a dowager,  which eventually leads to the most expensive woman in the world, which leads to visions of pleading ghosts lead which lead to phantom paintings on mountain tops which lead to heartless men, which lead to following a dragon through hell and back. Which leads to Master Li asking the all important question of why do children play the games they play? And through it all, they keep running into people they’ve met before in a curious pattern.

Bridge of Birds is a historical fantasy. The village and characters may be fictional, but the etiquette everyone follows, and most importantly the etiquette of the Celestial Court are held to exact standards. Master Li is a wise man who has fallen on hard times, a top scorer on his imperial exams, he has a slight flaw in his character that kept him from attaining bureaucratic career dreams. He has, however, been in the presence of the emperor, and speaks of that in a shockingly nonchalant fashion.

 

A gloriously fancifully told story, told so smoothly and harmoniously that you don’t realize Hughart’s mastery of the art until the final page. From the first chapter I was drawn to Number Ten Ox’s authentic charm, and then to Master Li’s intelligence tempered with crassness (or is it the other way around?). Hughart perfectly balances poetry, humor, mayhem,  near death, lightheartedness, flirtations, mythology, and crazily wonderful characters, Bridge of Birds is one of the most magical, most enjoyable books I’ve read all year.

 

It’s a completely unassuming little book.  You might not look at the cover art twice, the blurb on the back probably may or may not get your attention.  It’s because what’s inside this book is a secret that rivals a secret hidden so well for generations that it’s fallen through the floors of legend to become barely a memory. Where to hide a tragic secret the Celestial Court wasn’t even allowed to speak of?  Someplace no one would ever look, of course.  An unassuming little book with middling cover art would be the perfect place, don’t you think?  Far smarter than Old Man of the Mountain’s second stupidest student, who hid his heart

 

“inside an egg that was inside a duck that was a basket that was on an island in the middle of an uncharted ocean. Needless to say, both of those numbskulls were destroyed by the first half-witted heroes who came along.”

 

If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved Bridge of Birds. Reading it felt like flying, like I had left my worries behind. I could see the Earth below me, but I couldn’t touch it, I could see the sun above me, but wasn’t burned by its glow. My fingertips grazed by mountaintops, this was a moment and a place of being in between.  There was the possibility of seeing behind the grand curtain, but to do so I’d have to look away from all the story telling splendor before me. Even when I figured out a glimpse of a hint of what was going on, I didn’t want to follow my suspicions or take much of a guess at what might be going on, because doing so would ruin the magic of the story before me.

Bridge of Birds was Hughart’s debut novel in 1984, and won the World Fantasy Award for best novel, and then a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. There are two more books in this series, The Story of Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen.  In a fun bit of trivia, an omnibus of the series was published in 1998, and was illustrated by Kaja Foglio.

14 Responses to "Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart"

Excellent review. It made me regret not reading this sooner. Urg. So much to read and so little time!!!

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I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of this! But your review makes me want to rush out and buy a copy.

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I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I heard recently that someone is trying to adapt a movie version, but I’m not sure that’d work. I’d still go see it though🙂

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I Loved it

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This is a favorite book of mine, that I’ve not just read but reread. I’m envious that this is your first encounter. The next book, The Story of the Stone, is also great, and the final book, Eight Skilled Gentlemen, doesn’t quite rise to the same heights but still has its moments.

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I just picked up a collection of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, and it jumped near the top of my to-read list because of this excellent review. Glad to hear you enjoyed it! Do you plan on reading the other two books in the series?

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What an ace review – I want a copy immediately!!! However, it looks a bit difficult to come by. Definitely no kindle version – which would be quicker. Will have to be an import.
Lynn😀

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Red, a particularly lyrical review, just wonderful in every way.

I bought and read the paperback you show years ago, 1985 I think, and then more recently bought the 2008 Subterranean Press deluxe hardcover edition, signed by the author. Do I love these books? You betcha! There’s a lot of magic in this book, both in the storytelling and the story. A second reading revealed layers I’d missed the first time in my hurry to keep turning the pages to se what – and to whom – would happen next. Yummies.

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I read this years ago and loved it. Almost died laughing! I was pretty disappointed by the one sequel I managed to track down, though.😦

I hadn’t realised there was an omnibus, much less one illustrated by Kaja Foglio! Small world!

Question – did you have any issues with the book’s depiction of women? It didn’t bother me at the time, but looking back now, it does nag at me a bit…

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“Question – did you have any issues with the book’s depiction of women?”

Not really. It was certainly a “boys go on an adventure” type story and while I can see how that could be problematic for some readers, I wasn’t bothered by it.

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I’d better look this one up too. When will I get the chance to read all of these??

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when you are retired?

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[…] Red Reviewer reviews Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (Del Rey 1985). “A gloriously fancifully told story, told so smoothly and […]

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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