Bridge of Birds
by Barry Hughart
Tied for 1985 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
When talking about the World Fantasy Awards I mentioned that there were a few winners that had been on my list of books that I wanted to read for years. It has drifted off and on my radar from time to time but due to things like it being out of print and impossible to find at that time or my being bogged down with other things I never quite managed to get around to it. Now that I've finally read it I have to say that I'm disappointed that I took so long. Bridge of Birds is not only a good fantasy novel, it's one of the best novels that I've ever read.
The novel takes place roughly around 600AD in a China where the myths and legends are true. All of the children in a small village are struck by a mysterious ailment and so the strong but good-hearted peasant Number Ten Ox seeks help in the city. There he finds a sage with a slight flaw in his character named Master Li and the two of them have comic misadventures as they travel through mythic China solving mysteries and seeking a cure.
There's a lot more to it than that, of course, as Hughart weaves a careful and subtle plot among the comic misadventures. If I said anything more about it, though, it would completely ruin the fun of having things quite go as expected. The only thing approaching a complaint about the novel turned into one of the central mystery's big plot twists; it was a turn so ingenious that it subverted a plot device that I normally despise (if you've read the book before I'm not referring to the revelations in the last chapters but a little bit before that).
Part of what makes the story so effective is that Bridge of Birds is broken into easily digested chunks. One could view it as a set of short novelettes however this is one of those circumstances where when the last peice falls into place at the end of the book the whole tale is greater than the sum of its parts. So Hughart has Ox and Li move to a new adventure, get in trouble, and move on and each time the cycle repeats the view becomes just a bit wider. It's masterful pacing in which the novel never slows down; even the required exposition is presented dramatically.
A significant portion of the novel's charm is how smoothly it shifts tone. Hughart can comically relate the preparation of porcupine and then add in a romantic subplot before jumping into an adventure in the underworld that culminates in a tragic loss. He juggles those moods and settings like a master and while the overall tone of the novel is humorous there is far more going on than simple comedy.
All of that wonderful plotting would be worthless without characters and Bridge of Birds is not a let down there either. Number Ten Ox and Master Li are wonderfully engrossing characters and I think part of that has to do with the fact that they are the active characters in this story. It's typical in any novel with an adventure plot that the protagonists are reactive; the villain does something and they respond. By turning that normal situation on its ear Hughart lets the characters shine through their actions more. It's a lesson that a lot of fantasy authors need to learn.
If that wasn't enough the prose itself in the book is incredibly sharp. Hughart uses some awkward constructions to make it feel more like a novel translated from Chinese and in this case I think it adds to the story's charm.
There were two more books about Number Ten Ox and Master Li and I am eagerly looking forward to reading them. Bridge of Birds left me hungry for more; I want to see more of the wonders of mythic China through Hughart's tales. The only other thing I can say is that if you have not read it yet then you need to read it now; the only flaw with the book is that you'll be angry at yourself for not reading it sooner.