2011 World Book Day Pick: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

April 15, 2011 at 11:22 am 4 comments

Bridge of Birds by Barry HughartBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Reviewed by Mr Jason Erik Lundberg

My book pick for 2011 World Book Day is Barry Hughart’s masterful 1984 novel Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was. Here’s why.

Despite the book winning the 1985 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Mythopoeic Award for Best Fantasy, it has largely gone unknown and unremarked upon by the majority of fantasy readers. It was apparently successful enough for two more novels to be written about the protagonists Master Li Kao and Number Ten Ox (The Story of the Stone in 1988, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1991), but for all intents and purposes the books have dropped into obscurity. The Stars Our Destination Books released an omnibus of all three novels in 1998, called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, and ten years later Subterranean Press re-released the omnibus in both trade hardcover and limited leatherbound slipcased editions.

The novel takes place in seventh-century imperial China, but an alternate fantastical version of China (what Hughart refers to as “An Ancient China That Never Was”). In the small village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho lives our narrator:

My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong, I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.

On the fifteenth day of the eighth moon in the Year of the Dragon 3,337 (A.D. 639), after the annual silk harvest is inexplicably destroyed by blight, all the children of Ku-fu between the ages of eight and thirteen mysteriously fall into a coma from which they cannot awaken. Number Ten Ox is sent to Peking (Beijing) to find a wise man who can help them, and comes across Master Li Kao, an unkempt and grizzled old sage with “a slight flaw in his character” and a mischievous glint in his eye.

What follows is a masterful quest to find the Great Root of Power, a ginseng root with the ability to awaken the children from their unnatural slumber. Along the way, they run afoul of ghosts and monsters, navigate treacherous labyrinths, trick riches and information from the heartless and miserly, avoid the murderous gaze of the dreaded Duke of Ch’in, and find themselves wrapped up in a centuries-old conspiracy that involves immortal wise men and the August Personage of Jade himself.

Hughart’s prose vaults the reader through a spectacular and unexpected chain of events, and always with a sly nod and a wink, and dialogue that is often laugh-out-loud funny. Old as he is, Master Li has the sharp wit of the Smartest Man in China, and his observations and rapport with Number Ten Ox reveal a playfulness that comes across as hilarious. Even when they are in the most perilous of situations (which happens quite a bit throughout the novel), Li and Ox are the paragons of buddy comedy, which helps to diffuse the often horrible and over-the-top things that they must endure on their quest.

This is a book written by an American about ancient China, and so it is up to the reader to decide how authentic the voice and the story are here. (This is an especially apt challenge for our students, who have much more contextual knowledge of Chinese culture, literature, and mythology than I do.) However, that said, the book feels as if it rings true; both in the telling and in the details that Hughart chooses to give, it is evident that he did a tremendous amount of research and showed an equal amount of respect for Chinese history and cosmology. I welcome comments, especially from students who read the book, about the book’s authenticity.

Regardless, Bridge of Birds is a book worth discovering and keeping alive through discussion and recommendation. Kong Chian Library has multiple copies of Bridge of Birds for student borrowing; copies are also available to buy at OpenTrolley (but stocks are low, so be sure to order quickly).

N.B. My pick for 2010 WBD was Neil Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book, which I described thusly: “A remarkable retelling of The Jungle Book, but one set in a graveyard where the orphaned boy is brought up by ghosts. Nobody “Bod” Owens learns the important skills of Fading and Fear, but out beyond the graveyard still lives the man Jack who killed Bod’s family, and is waiting to finish the job. Scary and wonderful and full of masterful turns of phrase. An instant classic.”


Entry filed under: Events, Fantasy, Reviews.

2011 Library Week and World Book Day! Know Your eResources Quiz: Day 1

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kean Murphy  |  April 20, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    It is disappointing to know that even though a book is so interesting and has won so many awards, so few people appreciate it. Normally after winning awards like that an author and his works would become famous, but for some reason he didn’t. The publisher dropped him, causing him to be dejected and stop writing. It is very sad that we are deprived of such a great writer, as after hearing a passage from it being read out, I was engaged. The publisher wasn’t concerned how good the story was, all he was concerned about was how much money it earned. I hope such an incident does not happen in the future. If not, who knows how much valuable literary works we may have lost!

    • 2. Jason Erik Lundberg  |  April 21, 2011 at 7:14 am

      Unfortunately, Kean, this kind of thing happens all the time in publishing nowadays. 30 years ago, there were many more publishers out there, and they were willing to nurture authors through a career, even if one or two books did not perform as well as they’d hoped. Now, because there are really only five major publishing conglomerates (in the US, anyway), their focus is always on profit above cultivating an audience.

      However, a positive backlash against this ideology has been the rise of lots of small presses that may be willing to take a chance on a book that the Big Five won’t touch. They may not make a lot of money, but at least they’re getting the books out there, which is exciting.

  • 3. Gail  |  May 26, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Let me direct you to what remains of the official website, which includes an interview with the author. barryhughart DOT org
    The interview is from the year 2000.
    Barry apparently planned seven books, but wrote and published only three before deciding it was too much work for too little return.
    You have to wonder if his mind could be changed now.

    • 4. Jason Erik Lundberg  |  May 26, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      I’ve been the site, actually, but I’d forgotten that the entire first draft of Bridge of Birds was posted there. Must take the time to read soon.

      I don’t if his mind could be changed. The omnibus editions got some attention, but I don’t know if it’s enough. He’s also said that it’s not just the financial aspect, but that after three books, he pretty much said everything he wanted to about Li and Ox, and that continuing the series would become formulaic and repetitive.


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