Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: "Bridge of Birds" by Barry Hughart

When all the children in the village of Ku-fu fall mysteriously ill, Number Ten Ox goes to find a cure for them. In Peking's Street of Eyes, he hires the assistance of the ancient and unscrupulous sage Li Kao. But the only known cure for the mysterious ailment appears to be something out of a fairy tale--a magical ginseng root.

Ox and Li Kao set off in search of miracles, and money, and revenge. Every trail they follow leads them back to the Duke of Ch'in, with his terrifying tiger mask and his deadly labyrinth. Against his power, even Li Kao's clever schemes and Ox's pure faith may not be enough. Meanwhile, the sickly children of Ku-fu are running out time.

  2.5 out of 5 stars

In discussions of fairy tales outside the European tradition, I kept seeing the name Bridge of Birds  come up. The book, subtitled A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was, won the 1985 Word Fantasy Award as well as the 1986 Mythopoeic Award (pick a year, folks). That's absurdly high praise. It made me curious. Eventually I got it from the library and gave it a whirl.

Theoretically, the book is a retelling of the Chinese myth of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd. The love of these two constellations is thwarted by the river that separates them (the Milky Way.) By some miracle, once a year, all the birds in the world gather together to make a bridge on which the Weaver Girl can cross over to her beloved.

Though Bridge of Birds does touch on the supernatural--obviously--I wouldn't have thought to classify it as "fantasy." Maybe my sense of history is off, or perhaps, after too many fantastical novels, I grow a little lax about my standards for what is strictly true and possible. (Who knows.) As Number Ten Ox says at the start of the tale, "fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can."

Unlike my usual somber fare, it's a comic story: one that veers from con artistry to Indiana Jones-esque adventure to sheer farce. I would not recommend it at all if I had not soldiered through to the end. The conclusion of the story is remarkably beautiful. There are no coincidences, only puzzle pieces which click silently into place without drawing the reader's attention. I appreciate the way that the author, Barry Hughart, bound together the quest that Number Ten Ox and Li Kao meant to be taking and the quest that everyone else thought they were taking. Together, it forms a single tale of setting things right.

In the heavens, the Weaver Girl crosses the Milky Way
on a bridge of birds to reach her beloved Cowherd.
However, the beginning is rough going. Hughart serves as Exhibit A for why it's tricky to write a comic novel about a different culture than your own. A lot of the book's humor stems from the kind of "Look what silly things these foreigners do! Aren't they ridiculous?" mentality that I hope the human race is outgrowing.

That, coupled with the list of simpering female characters who exist to be "persuaded" into sleeping with Number Ten Ox for his character growth, almost made me put the book down before it had even properly started.

Thankfully, I read quickly. Once that early quagmire is passed, the rest of the book is a fun romp. In their quest to find a cure, Li Kao and Number Ten Ox stumble from one absurd scheme to another, cliffhangers following cliffhangers and equally absurd escapes from certain death. The conclusion, as I've mentioned, is of such quality that it elevates the rest of the book.
"O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the secret of wisdom!" he bawled.

To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. "Take a large bowl," I said. "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 thousand years of civilization, bellow 'kan pei'--which means 'dry cup'--and drink to the dregs."

He stared at me. "And I will be wise?" he asked.

"Better," I said. "You will be Chinese."
The completionist in me is glad that I read Bridge of Birds. Overall, though--even with the ending--I found it to be only moderately interesting and not terribly memorable. Lovers of fairy tales and of comic adventures may find it worth a read, but if your stack of books-to-read is as high as mine, I think you can pass this one by without much regret.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: violence, gruesome executions, sexual assault

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