I get a lot of people asking me for book recommendations. That’s not all that strange, considering how much I read, and that I write a lot of reviews. All the same, I still find it hard to know what to say sometimes… tastes are so different. And I’ve been burned before by bad feedback.
I have one book that has never failed me yet. Friends, family, genre fans, non-readers, the dubious… it doesn’t matter, they all fall under the spell of this particular title.
I’m talking about a book called Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, and I’m (slightly) exaggerating the case for it. It’s an obscure novel from 20 years ago, obscure mainly because of publisher screwups (see below). People simply didn’t know about it.
That’s a shame because Bridge of Birds has everything the demanding reader might want. Grisly murders and ghosts and narrow escapes from death? Check. Hilarious scams such as a goat that apparently poops gold coins, mummified Buddhist monks that rise from the dead to scare mourners away from an expensive funeral ceremony, or grand lies about the art of porcupine cookery by way of the Elixir of Eighty Evil Essences? Check. Insight into Chinese culture? Unusual magic? A tightly woven mystery with a perfect wrap-up? Check, check and check.
Hughart also writes a very difficult thing: a cross-cultural novel that does not suffocate under the weight of its own importance. With only one or two exceptions, the songs and poems in the book are real, but they don’t feel like homework. Hughart’s evocation of Chinese culture is very bright and vivid, and enormously funny. It’s a great example of how a tale well told can teach a reader more than twenty textbooks.
Number Ten Ox is from a small village, and some children in his town have been poisoned. The only antidote to their lingering coma is the Great Root of Power. Ox finds the elderly sage Li Kao to help the village, and Li Kao is an inspired invention. He mentions his “slight flaw in his character” to everyone he meets, and we soon learn that it’s a scary ruthlessness — the book has some quite gruesome scenes. Also, whenever Ox has a chance to kiss the ladies, Li Kao wishes that he were ninety again. So an alcohol-swilling, scam-pulling 100+ year old, scholarly and spry, and his peasant friend who narrates the story — not exactly Holmes and Watson!
As my summary makes clear, Bridge of Birds has a variety of tones to it. Hughart swings from ultraviolence to a cheap gag in an instant, and he somehow makes it work. He also writes in a pseudo-highbrow prose at times, and the floweriness somehow suits the adventures he is describing. For example:
Li Kao chewed thoughtfully on his beard and then he said, “Ho, Ox and I are wrapped in so many chains that we can’t move, you are attached to the wall by a leg chain, this dungeon is solid rock, the torture chamber is crammed with soldiers, we are eleven stories beneath the earth, and each landing is guarded by more soldiers. The palace is swarming with the army of the Ancestress, the army of the Duke of Ch’in is camped outside the walls, and Ox and I must escape from here immediately. Unless you look forward to being drawn and quartered, I suggest that you accompany us.”
“I think that’s a splendid idea,” said Henpecked Ho. (217)
The three scoundrels get out of course, but how could they possibly surmount such odds?
I’ve mentioned that the book is also a mystery and that it has a strong wrap-up. Hughart leaves clues all along the way as to secret identities and strange coincidences. As you read, you start to wonder how the pieces could all fit together, but just like the escape from the dungeon, Hughart has an entertaining and memorable solution. The ending is a case study in how to not let your reader down at the end of the story.
Hughart wrote Bridge of Birds in 1984, and he followed it up with two sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentleman. The sequels are worth checking out, even if they are not quite as funny. Hughart got severely jerked around by the publishers who miscategorized his books, released them early (that it to say, out of sync with the advertising and reviews) or with the hardcover and paperback simultaneously or only to the miniscule number of science fiction/fantasy specialty stores. He has not written anything since.