Bridge of Birds

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Bridge of Birds
Written by: Barry Hughart
Central Theme:
Genre(s): Historical fantasy
Series: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
Followed by: The Story of the Stone
First published: 1984
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Bridge of Birds, the first installment in Barry Hughart's literary trilogy The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, is a fantasy novel taking place in a version of ancient China wherein the regional folk tales and Taoist myths are all true. The gods really do meddle in the affairs of mortals (but subtly, for reasons of etiquette) and minor bits of magic can be found anywhere.

Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox because of his birth order and great strength, is a humble peasant living in the village of Ku-fu, content to spend his days farming and assisting with the annual silk harvest...until one year when the abject failure of the harvest coincides with a devastating plague that infects the children--and only the children--of the village. Ox's aunt sends him to Peking with money in order to hire a wise man to solve the mystery, and he winds up with one Li Kao, an antiquated drunkard who keeps company with bandits and thugs. But despite these "slight flaws in his character," Master Li also has a well-developed sense of justice and quite possibly the keenest mind in all China, and he eagerly joins--in fact, he takes command of--Ox's quest to save the children. A quest that ultimately takes them into every conceivable corner of China, into bustling cities and deep caverns and across deserts and mountain ranges, to do business and battle (sometimes simultaneously) with brilliant scholars, horrifying monsters, scheming noblewomen, obsessive businessmen, demigods, and not a few tormented ghosts.

The writing style is lush and poetic yet semi-conversational in tone, featuring devices such as alliteration, humorous exaggeration and understatement, and casual references to Chinese history and folklore. The tone is a wonderful blend of action, drama, comedy, and even romance, along with an engaging theme of mystery and discovery as Ox and Master Li gather and put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although short as fantasy novels go--it clocks in at under 300 pages--it nonetheless contains more story than many a conventional Doorstopper.

Hughart wrote two sequels--The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen--which have been published in an omnibus edition with their precursor. Neither really lives up to the standard set by Bridge of Birds, although they are still very good.

Tropes used in Bridge of Birds include:

The Story of the Stone contains examples of:

  • Anything That Moves: Moon Boy. Up to and including a ten-feet-tall demon!
    • He does stick to males, though, much to Grief of Dawn's annoyance.
  • Band of Brothels: The guildmistress is called the Captain of Prostitutes, and she is the most powerful woman in China.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: Hellish bureaucracy in this case.

Demons bowed to trolls, who bowed to ogres, who bowed to devils.

  • Chinese Vampire: Lurching, strangling, and soul-stealing variety, not the hopping one. The name is transcribed as chiang shih.
  • Mad Artist: Not the usual kind, though.
  • Noodle Incident: "I tied the other end of a tarred rope around the corpse's legs, and it slid silently beneath the surface and drifted down to join the others." It is mentioned that "the others" are described in lost volumes of Memoirs of Number Ten Ox, which were destroyed by Imperial Censors.
  • Odd Job Gods: The guild of prostitutes even petitions Heaven for a new patron deity, as the current one isn't tough and crafty enough.
  • Really Gets Around: Moon Boy.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen contains examples of: