"My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and I have a slight flaw in my character. This is my esteemed client, Number Ten Ox, who is about to hit you over the head with a blunt object."
- Master Li
Once every so often in your life, you come across a book that instantly makes it into your all-time favorites. A book where you can get lost in it, that makes you feel for the characters in it, and that you can hold up as unforgettable and instantly recognizable. In short, once every so often in your life, you come across what can only be described as a favorite book. Bridge of Birds is that for me, and I'll gladly put it in the pantheon along with all the rest. It worked overtime to make me feel good, to give me that world that easily sucked me in and didn't let go until the last lines. This is, for me, now one of my favorite books.
I don't even know how I came across this one. I think I was looking on Wikipedia for Kaja Foglio (Wife of Phil Foglio and co-creator of Girl Genius) to explain something for my then-girlfriend. In any case, through a random series of link dives, I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Instantly I was intrigued, and after a bit of digging, came up with an Amazon link to a n omnibus edition of the books that cost far more than I would ever be willing to pay ($125)*. Luckily, my local library and the interlibrary loan program (which everyone should know how to use, and not just for academic research) came to the rescue and at long last I sat down to read it.
And it blew me away. The book begins in the small village of Ku Fu, where the annual Silkworm Festival, an event that usually brings the local merchants tons of money, is sabotaged. Due to the sabotage, the children of the town are exposed to poisonous fumes and all fall into a coma. Lu Yu, known as Number Ten Ox because he is the tenth person in his family and possesses great strength, is sent with the village's money to find a detective. After much searching and little luck, he finds a hundred year old man sleeping off a bad drunk. Upon coming back to consciousness, the man introduces himself as Li Kao, or as Ox begins to call him, Master Li. A former con man who decided solving crimes was much more challenging and interesting than committing them, Li turns out to be the greatest scholar in the Empire, despite his occasionally unscrupulous means. Li heads back to the village with Ox and immediately figures out who poisoned the slikworms and how. How to bring the children back, though, eludes him. And so, Master Li and Ox embark on a quest to find the medicine they need, or die in the attempt.
I could list everything I like about this book, but it would be a long list. Master Li is, despite the "slight flaw in (his) character" he's quick to remind everyone about, a thoroughly engaging character, be it his con jobs to make sure he and Ox aren't hurting for money, or his lightning-fast intellect. Li is what Sherlock Holmes would be if he were more personable and less aloof-- a ribald, snarky, hard-drinking, loveable, ingenious bastard. His "Watson" is our narrator, Number Ten Ox. Ox is an audience surrogate. Seeing Master Li through his eyes, what would probably be obnoxious to behold otherwise, or even flat-out illegal, is seen as ingenious and amusing. Ox gives us an interesting way of looking at the world, one in which we get a sense of wonder and interest in this world and how it works. The narrative voice and the strength of our main characters and even the minor ones like Miser Shen and Henpecked Ho helps to drag you into the story at the start and carry you through.
The dialogue helps back things up, being deft and very, very funny. The sequence in the "worst wineshop in China" where Master Li has the shortest recorded bar fight in existence and then, using a severed ear, successfully bargains for several extravagant items with which to pull off a con with is particularly funny, but each bit of dialogue does its part, be it the duke's vizier's wife who calls her paramours (including Ox) things like "Boopsie" or "Woofie" or the almost too calm and nice Henpecked Ho, who is personable until Master Li suggests that an axe might fix the problem he's having with his monstrous wife and seven obese sisters-in-law. While these characters may have more informal speech patterns than their station and time period would usually allow, it helps draw us in. They talk like real people, therefore we can treat them like real people.
The descriptions and the plot finally ram things home, though. Barry Hughart, the author of this book and its sequels, knows the importance of individual pieces building together to a whole. In particular are the sequences in the Duke's Labyrinths, where there is a definite sense of urgency as our heroes try to escape before the death that awaits them catches up. Many of the setpieces and the sense of emotion is shown, not told, something a lot of people who write fantasy and science fiction forget almost entirely. Hughart moves quickly from one setpiece to the next in a style that far outstrips Stephen Hunt's action sequences and doesn't stop to quit while it's got a minor lead. A good example of this is the "sword dance", where Ox must complete a series of increasingly complex maneuvers with a pair of swords so he can appease a ghost. The scene is lit at dusk and instantly, an image of the scene and what was going on popped up in my head.
If there's anything at fault, though, it's that the mood doesn't work for the whole book. While the story has a light tone, there's one sequence in particular where a revenge murder is half-disguised as physical comedy. Granted, the subject of the cruel prank definitely deserved it, but when you start to think on it, it was really a nasty thing to do. Other points where the mood doesn't completely work include a palace stampede culminating in a gruesome axe murder and several other, more minor moments. But these are but specks on the large, intriguing work that is Bridge of Birds.
In closing, the book is a fantastic read, and will go up on my top five along with Fool on the Hill, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Neverending Story (The original book, which I'll get to at some point). This book is worth a read, and not just that, but maybe a re-read, as there are probably things I've missed. It's funny, sad, exciting, and the ending had me half-crying, half-laughing. It's got all the components of the best of books, and it's infuriating that almost no one knows it exists. (Or at least, all the people I've mentioned it to have gone "What? Who?" So, once more for the cheap seats, READ BRIDGE OF BIRDS!
*Individually, the books are quite reasonably priced. It's just the omnibus editions, and the "limited" one in particular where they get kinda pricey.
Next Week: The Master Li series continues with The Story of the Stone, and I do a live reading of Joe Hill on Halloween. See you then!