BOOK: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

This short fantasy novel, recommended to me by a book lovin’ (and sellin’!) friend, is set in a fictitious Ancient China somewhere around the seventh century or so. As the story opens, we are introduced to our narrator, a big lumbering oaf named Lu Yu, called “Number Ten Ox” by his friends. In Ox’s village, the yearly silkworm spinning has just begun, an elaborate procedure that brings the entire village together in work and celebration. But instead of the usual bounty of silk everyone has come to expect, all the silkworms have begun to get sick and die. That’s tragedy enough for a village that depends on the selling of that silk to keep afloat, but things quickly go from crap to shite when, one by one, all the village children also begin to fall ill.

Desperate to find a cure, the villagers send Ox to Peking to try to find a wise man to help. Unfortunately, though the village scraped together all the money they had for this task, it’s still not enough for the experts of Peking. One by one, they laugh Ox’s offer of a few coins off, slamming their doors in his face. Ox is about to give up when he comes across Master Li, a drunken genius with a much-touted “slight flaw in his character.” Master Li agrees to return to the village with Ox, and after studying the situation for a while, figures out both the cause and the solution to the village’s problem. Unfortunately, the solution involves finding the Great Root of Power, which Li believes is the key to a cure for the children, and finding the Great Root will be no easy feat. To that end, Master Li and Ox set out on a series of searches for the Root, traveling from one side of the country to the other, and encountering a vivid and wild collection of gods, monsters, ghosts, wise men, villains, and, for extra kicks, the most expensive woman in the world.

While at first this novel seemed a bit disjointed, like the diseased-children storyline was just a clumsy excuse to spin a series of separate adventure yarns, it became clear by the end that there was actually a fairly elaborate underlying framework to the whole thing — one based on an ancient legend and a children’s rhyme. Even better, though, this novel is simply a blast to read. It’s packed with truly magical descriptions of “an ancient China that never was,” a delightful cast of characters, and loads of satisfying puzzles, relationships, and resolutions. On the surface, Bridge of Birds seems like a straight comic adventure/fantasy story. But the more you read, the more you begin to realize it is also a very poignant tale filled with emotion and warmth. I had a really hard time putting this book down once I started it, and I absolutely fell head-over-heels with both Master Li, the perfect flawed hero for a story like this one, and his lovable and endlessly faithful foil, Number Ten Ox. The only thing that kept me from being completely miserable when it was over was the knowledge that it’s the first in a series. Can’t wait to read Number Two Book about Number Ten Ox! (And hey, Steve, thanks for recommending this one — I really enjoyed it and you totally rule!)

[FANTASY]

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4 Responses to “BOOK: Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart”

  1. alisaj29 Says:

    Was the movie Silk w/Keira Knightley based on this book?

  2. megwood Says:

    Nope — looks like that was based on a French novel by Alessandro Baricco (of the same name: “Silk”). How was the movie — did you see it?

  3. alisaj29 Says:

    Hubby and I watched it for about 10-20mins before I had to ask him if this is the movie he wanted us to watch. LOL The movie he meant to get was a Japanese horror movie w/the same name.

    Silk w/Keira seemed like it was good, have to get it on netflix, however Silk the horror movie SUXED.

  4. Hollie Says:

    Greg has been trying to get me to read this for ages. Maybe I should go do that…

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