"Now let's take a look at reality. Little Hong Wong is indeed taken in hand by the educational establishment and force-fed languages, calligraphy, poetry...following which he's ready to start learning something--mathematics, for example...He passes his examinations and is ready for his first official appointment, and then what happens?"
"A superior who inherited the job from his uncle rams a barge pole up his ass."
"Good boy...Ox, at an early age, a Chinese genius gazes at the path that lies ahead and reaches for the wine jar. Is it any wonder that our greatest men have lurched rather than walked across the landscape as they hiccupped their way into history?"
- Master Li and Number Ten Ox, respectively
I have a mild problem with sequels to books like this. I suppose the problem started with Harry Potter, weirdly enough, a series I have a mild amount of respect for. The first book set things up with such a sense of wonder and exploration that it was like stepping into a new world and viewing everything for the first time. It felt, honestly, like a vacation. You know, how you go somewhere and stay in a nice hotel, and you absolutely love every moment of being in the city or the small town or whatever, and you think you could stay there forever. To continue the comparison, though, the sequels are the moment you start trying to live somewhere and realize that this has become where you live, and all the things you found so fascinating are now terribly, terribly commonplace. So you have to find new things to do and experience, while all the while the things you used to find so cool become routine.
Master Li and Number Ten Ox is no exception to the rule. Li's slight flaw is still the same, though Ox is less innocent. It appears that in between Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone, Number Ten Ox has become more streetwise and mature in his ways, and less innocent. He's writing his memoirs, which Master Li complains about for making him look "violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there's a need for it." The story proper opens as Ox casually observes an assassination attempt in our heroes' favorite drinking establishment, the Worst Wineshop in China (yes, the one from Bridge of Birds), located in the Alley of Flies (guess what the wine's secret ingredient is?). From there, they are called to investigate a curious forgery and murder case that quickly turns into an insane quest involving a divine inkstone, a long-dead prince, several folk and fairy tales, and a mushroom-fueled trip to Hell. On their quest, they are accompanied by a concubine and a sound manipulator somehow interlinked with each other in a way that's best left unexplained, who have their own part to play in the mess.
But it doesn't feel as natural or tight as in Bridge of Birds. Ox is less the innocent fool, which is a bit of a relief, but at the same time, Li feels scaled back from the man who would easily slice off a thug's ear in a bar dispute. There's better by-play, but Ox sometimes feels relegated to a position of observer where in Bridge he observed, but he had just as many insights that helped move the plot along. The plot seems like it's starting to become formulaic, which is bound to happen, but shouldn't in such a way that your readers can guess a few of the minor plot twists because you used them in previous books. The locations have been scaled down from the country-spanning plot of the first book, but some elements seem scattershot. It's as if Hughart felt like writing another book, but didn't have his heart and soul invested in it the way he did the first one. It's actually kinda sad in a sense. The whole thing ends in an anticlimax that barely reaches the highs of the first book, and the big reveals aren't so much reveals as casual observations, as if one trips over gods, monsters, and long-dead handmaidens several times a day.
Which is not to say that there aren't lovely points in the book. The trip to hell is a high point, as is Master Li petitioning the Celestials to appoint a new goddess of prostitutes, and the bit on the eating habits of monks (for self-mortification). The darker tone of story and the air of desperation as the Neo-Confucianists (a group much like conservatives, but with classical philosophy degrees) have taken power and appointed an Imperial Censor. Master Li's class of people, it would appear, are on their way out where before they were a fixture in the opulent place that is the Middle Kingdom. And the dialogue flies fast and furious as ever, though Master Li and Ox seem a little more cynical than in their previous outing.
I suppose my reaction might be mainly to the tone, but it just didn't seem as right to me as Bridge of Birds was. That the villain built up for most of the book was defeated (and that's not a spoiler...there's a third book here, so the heroes have to win in some capacity) in such a handwaved manner that it almost felt rushed. and then the archvillain was presented in too affable a manner for the final confrontation to have any heft. When the loose ends started to get tied up, I was more glad that things were coming to any kind of conclusion. That shouldn't happen, particularly in a book written by someone like Barry Hughart.
In the end, I'm not as incensed or angry with the book as I am disappointed. It started out rather strong, sort of like a Chinoiserie version of The Name of the Rose, or a fantasy-historical murder mystery. It ended like a B movie where they ran out of budget halfway through. The whole thing was a solid book, and I admit, if I'd written Bridge of Birds, I'd have an almost impossible act to follow. But solid doesn't cut it when the narrative shows so many flaws, and I can't forgive or give this a pass for so many. It's worth a read if you want to revisit the world of Li Kao and Lu "Number Ten Ox" Yu, but not worthy of a solid place in the series. I have hopes for the third one, though. With certain notable exceptions like Star Wars (Empire, not Attack of the Clones) and Nightside, second volumes usually suck.
Next Week: The series concludes with The Eight Skilled Gentlemen.