Whenever someone asks me about my all-time favourite books, I invariable whinge about not being able to choose just one. But if I’m pressed further, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds is amongst the first books I’ll mention.
The novel tells of the first adventure of Number Ten Ox (the villager who’s telling the story) as he’s trying to solve the mysterious sickness that afflicted the children of his village. He teams up with master Li Kao, a rather eccentric octogenarian scholar.
What to expect
One of the best historical-fantasy detective/mystery novels out there. In a market populated by dark fantasy and horror detectives, this book stands unique in one important aspects – charm.
What I liked
Pretty much everything: the characters (both main and supporting), the setting, the plot twists as they try to ascertain the root cause and possible solutions. I find the novel strikes an excellent balance between the naive Number Ten Ox and the cynical Master Li, between the rational and the fantastical, between China that was and China that could have been.
What to be aware of
This isn’t a Chinese epic, rather a Western romantic view of ancient China. Don’t expect to learn real history and culture. As Hughart himself says, it’s a story of “An Ancient China that Never Was.”
There are two sequels: The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I find them just as charming and enticing, but I know some readers who commented that they found them a tad repetitive. Whatever the case, we all agree that it was a damn shame that Hughart’s publishers decided to be dickheads – there were supposed to be more sequels, but due to the publishers’ incompetence they never saw the light.
This is a book of inspired (and inspiring) writing. It is an absolute pleasure to read. I keep re-reading it every few years, and every time it’s still just as good.
I suggest you get a copy of Bridge of Birds and start reading right now, or save yourself the bother and get all three volumes at once. You won’t be disappointed.