A Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
“Take a large bowl, fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousands years of civilization, bellow kan pei, which means 'dry cup' and drink to the dregs.”
“And will I be wise?”
“Better, you'll be Chinese.”
Dialogue between Li Kao and Procopius, page 29.
A Bridge of Birds is the first spacebattles recommendation, but it won't be the last. Set in a China that never was but should have been, it's a tale of a simple quest that starts simple and quickly explodes into a complex, gloriously entertaining mess. Given that the book won the World Fantasy Award in 1985 and the Mythopeic Award in 1986. Which makes it one of the more accomplished books I've done a review for on this blog. Despite this, I am more then willing to add my two cents. Let me start with the author of course.
Written by Mr. Hughart, who currently resides in Tucson Arizona. Mr. Hughart has a lot of experience in Asia, having served in Japan and Korea with the United States Air Force and working with a military surplus company that was based out of Asia. Interestingly enough, he admits in interviews that while he's read many classics of Chinese literature, he has never visited China due to the cold war (his service was during the 50's). He wasn't even allowed to visit Hong Kong. His exposure to eastern culture shows in the book. While it doesn't have the same voice as the Journey to the West (but then, the Chinese parts of Asia are big places and there is plenty of rooms for more then one voice therein), it still feels like a Chinese story, instead of a Western story set in China. Let me clarify that, Mr. Hughart writes like a man who has sat down and read the classics of Chinese literature and taken a deep drink of the culture. That said I wouldn't say he writes like a native, just someone really familiar with the old culture of China. Of course I should point out that I am no where near an expert in China so I could be completely off base here. Anyways, I was sad to find out that this is the first book in a series that will never be finished. Mr. Hughart had wanted to write 7 books but due to disagreements with his publishers (among them selling it in the fantasy lot), books 4-7 were never written. I am told that book 3 might change my mind about this being a sad thing, but I digress
The story begins when the children of the village of Ku-Fu are poisoned while harvesting feed for silk worms. Lu Yu (not to be confused with the famous man who wrote The Classic of Tea) who goes by the name Number Ten Ox is charged by his aunt to find them a sage. Unfortunately she gives him 5000 copper coins and as anyone who has played a fantasy RPG can tell you... Copper coins will buy you about 2/3rd of a cup of give a fuck and not a drop more. This is demonstrated to us when Number Ten Ox doesn't even make it pass the doormen of most the sages for hire. Lucky for our protagonist, he discovers there is a sage willing to work for cheap. Surname Li, personal name Kao and with a slight flaw in his character... If you consider being a drunk, a thief, a liar and a cheat all slight flaws anyways. That said, Master Li may just be the smartest guy in all of China, which is pretty damn smart, he's willing to go to insane lengths to finish the job, his professional ethics are impeccable and he'll work for copper coins. So you know... He'll do.
Let me discuss our two main characters here. Number Ten Ox is a village kid with large muscles and a bigger heart. The story is told from his point of view, which leads to an interesting situation where a number of nearly superhuman feats are down played because Ox is a modest boy. While he is a good boy, he's also willing to go the mat to save the children of his village. If that means dealing with bandits, monsters and gods... Well that's what he'll do. He plays a lot of roles in this book, he's a dashing hero, a lying liar who lies, a man mourning a lost love, an innocent farm boy and a sage's treasured pupil. If there was a traditional hero in this story Number Ten Ox would be it. He's also the audience stand in some situations, as being from a tiny little village, he of course doesn't know all that much about some of the figures and places that he and Li Kao find themselves in. Course Li Kao will be happy to explain that.
Let's take a look at Li Kao, a man with a colorful past that ranges from imperial palaces to the dirty gutters. When Number Ten Ox's find him he's passed right out and all he wants is a jar of cheap wine (the kind you can buy with copper coins). Give him a tipple and a job though... And he doesn't give a crap about wine. Which kinda suggest whatever his problem is, it's not an addiction to booze. Older then old (oh to be 90 again I can hear him sigh) and with every ounce of the kind of sly, wicked wisdom that comes from surviving misspent decades. That said, while at times venal, I wouldn't call him evil or all that bad. A little corrupt perhaps, but his predatory urges seem restricted to people who are just as bad or even worse. Yeah, this is a guy who is willing to lie, cheat and murder to get the job done but frankly this is a guy trying to save the lives of dozens of children for a bowl of copper coins he already spent going up against people who are wealthy and as vile as ripe sewage. I kinda find it hard to hold his flaws against him in such a situation especially given the people I am forced to compare him to.
The villains in this story are uniformly wealthy, powerful people who think nothing of bringing ruin and pain to everyone around them. Often for the most petty reasons. We all know people like this so sadly these people are incredibly realistic despite their fantastic surroundings. I mean we have the Ancestress, based on Empress Dowager Ci xi, a woman who started as an imperial concubine and worked her up to ruler of China. She was however utter crap at it on a account of only being interested in her own comfort and rights. Thrown out of power and exiled to the countryside she plots revenge and makes the life everyone around her utterly miserable. S Then there's the Duke of Chin, who rules from behind a Tiger mask so every Duke of Chin will be the same as the first. This is a guy who when told that the crops of a village had been destroyed and the peasants begged for tax relief so they could rebuild, kills everyone and burns down the village. Compared to people like this, Li Kao could be nominated for sainthood.
The recurring minor characters are also joys and interesting case studies of the skill of a good writer. I found myself cheering on the scholar Henpecked Ho on his murderous rampage. This book made me cheer on a man going on an axe murder spree! I felt sorry for Miser Shen. The story of Bright Star was tragic and moving. Minor characters are given just enough color to feel like actual people with interesting stories, but they never overshadow our heroes. This is a tough tightrope to walk but it's done with panache here.
The story itself is broken up into episodes as our heroes chase down leads, encounter obstacles and learn more about the increasingly high stakes game they've bellied up to. Form trying to figure out the proper cure, to hunting it down and more. Each episode reads as a nearly contained story in and itself which is an interesting way to write a book. At the end of each episode they return to the village and it's there we usually get revelations about Number Ten Ox, or the village itself that plays into the story later down the line. That said, we learn more about the children of the village then the adults. They (excluding our buddy Ox of course) don't do much besides sit vigils by their kids. There's the abbot of the village temple of course and his job is basically to nod with Li Kao and confirm that he's a genius. As well as assist with the treatments they come up with. Besides that the village is the most lifeless part of the book, which is damn odd. Part of it might be that every moment past the first chapter we spend in the village the characters are preparing to be somewhere else. We learn a lot more about the life and past times of the children of the village. We learn about their games, relationships and more. This is despite most of them never getting a line here. Don't get me wrong, there is color to the village, mostly in the misplaced section of the Wall of China, the general who built there claimed he was ordered to by heaven itself. The wall called the Dragon's Pillow is a bit of curiosity and plays a part in the story. As does the ghost who sits watch over the wall.
That ghost isn't the only one! You'll run into several ghosts reading this story, each with their own story and often with a task that our heroes must perform to complete their mission. The ghosts work pretty well. They often work to introduce a touch of the fantastic as well as advance the plot. Additionally we see brief but interesting appearances of Taoists and they are set in the right role. That of people living pretty outside of the Confucius order of society and subtly critical of it. In fact, I would suspect that Li Kao is himself a Taoist given some of his comments. The whole book itself has some subtle criticisms of ruling parties who get to wrapped up in their privileges and wealth to remember just what they're suppose to be doing. Which ironically plants it firmly in the Taoist tradition, which I am aware of but haven't really looked into.
Bridge of Birds gets an A. It's one of the best fantasy works I've read and I encourage everyone to give it a tour.