Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is not a new book. Not even close. It was published in 1984. In 1985 it won the World Fantasy Award for best novel and in 1986 it won the Mythopoeic award for best fantasy.
Bridge of Birds is ‘a novel of an ancient China that never was,’ to use the lovely description that appeared on some of the covers of editions over the years. It is the first of three books that feature Number Ten Ox, our narrator, and Master Li, an elderly (at least 100 years old), disreputable scholar with ‘a slight flaw in [his] character.’
At the outset of the book, all the children between the ages of 8 and 13 in Ku Fu village are struck with the same illness. Ox is charged to go to the big city and ask a scholar how a plague has learned to count, that it would strike only some children and not others.
With the saved wealth of his aunt, Ox can only afford to pay the elderly drunkard, Li Kao, to help and so begins the quest to save the children of Ku Fu. When the hand of the August Personage of Jade, the greatest of the gods, seems to be involved, Ox and Master Li know there is more to their journey than is at first apparent.
Well, I can’t stress enough how much I love this book. I will make a confession. I just read this book, but it was not the first time (not even the second or the third). So I love this book. The End.
Well, that’s not much of a review is it? Fine. Here goes.
The tone of Bridge of Birds is light and there is a lot of humor to be found. Even better, the humor is offset with fast-paced, exciting action as well as passages of great poignancy. Other characters come and go. Some return having been transformed (for good or ill) by their experiences. All the while, something bigger than—though never more important than—the illness of Ku Fu’s children, builds around Ox and Master Li.
Hughart’s prose is playful and graceful. The voice of Number Ten Ox never falters. He is a young, innocent, country lad but wise enough to see the world around him as it is and to keep his tongue firmly in cheek. Still Ox remains kind enough to never disrespect the reader or the characters with whom he interacts. It’s a careful balancing act, especially in first person, and Hughart walks that tightrope well.
There are of moments of sweetness and sadness that never slip into melodrama nor become maudlin. There are moments that will make a reader laugh out loud, though the novel never descends into slapstick. It is a book of the fantastic and the grand, seen through good-hearted Ox’s prosaic and sensible mind.
In all, Bridge of Birds is a book of perfect balance, which would—I think—have pleased Hughart’s Taoist influences very well.
Bridge of Birds on wikipedia
amazon.com reviews for Bridge of Birds
Bridge of Birds goodreads page
The first, unpublished, very different but also delightful, draft of Bridge of Birds
(thanks to @navythriller for directing me to this!)