Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bridge of Birds

[Another fairly hastily written review as I try to avoid slipping beneath the tidal wave of books waiting to be reviewed!]

Bridge of Birds (1984) by Barry Hughart is a unique novel set in a fantastical, whimsical version of imperial China.  The novel won the World Fantasy Award and seems to have amassed a bit of a cult following.  I first heard about it in a forum posting where people were suggesting their favorite novels.  While it didn't end up being one of my favorites, Bridge of Birds was definitely a singular reading experience!

The novel tells the tale (and what a tale it is) of Lu Yu, better known as Number Ten Ox, and his journey to save the children of his village from a mysterious plague that has beset them during the silk harvest.  Not knowing where to turn, Ox enlists the services of Master Li Kao, a sage found in the back alleys of Peking who is known more for his ability to quaff liquor than anything else.  Master Li turns out to be a brilliant mind and steadfast ally to Ox during the search for the only known cure for the illness:  a legendary plant known as the Great Root of Power.  Indeed, the two travel to the ends of the earth together as they undergo adventures, each more unbelievably outrageous than the last.

Bridge of Birds has a brilliant, zany style that is all its own.  The predicaments that Master Li and Ox find themselves in are all completely over the top, yet somehow they escape again and again (and again).  Hughart manages to keep this manic tone going throughout the entire novel.  In spite of this, I never worried that the story was going to go off the rails (despite the car leaning heavily to the side at times), because each encounter is deftly woven into a fairly complex overarching plot.

As I hinted above, this one wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but that has more to do about my personal taste than any deficit on the part of Bridge of Birds.  Readers looking for a fun read full of madcap adventures would do well to check it out!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Egyptian

The Egyptian (1945) by Mika Waltari tells the fantastic tale of Sinuhe, an Egyptian physician whose life rises and falls like the waters of the river Nile during the tumultuous 14th century BC.  It is a time of great upheaval, with a newly crowned pharaoh forcing a radically different monotheistic religion on the Egyptian empire.  We all know that sort of thing usually turns out...

Sinuhe himself narrates the events of the novel, which opens with him being found in a reed boat on the banks of the river by a poor couple.  Sinuhe follows in the footsteps of his adopted father and trains as a physician.  Just as he is coming of age, the old pharoah, Amenhotep III, falls deathly ill.  Through a chance encounter while tending the dying ruler, he is introduced to the boy who will become the pharaoh Akhenaton and a relationship is forged that will change Sinuhe's life, and indeed all of Egypt, forever.

Despite achieving material success as a physician of great renown in Egypt, Sinuhe is not happy with his life and sets out on a journey around the known world.  Sinuhe's wanderings lead him to visit several of the other civilizations flourishing in the Mediterranean at the time, including Syria, Babylon, and Crete.  He is even so bold as to venture into land of the Hittites, Egypt's main rival for power during the period.  Of course, he has many hair-raising adventures along the way and even manages to fall in love.  He eventually returns to Thebes, where he plays a crucial part in the great drama that is the Egypt of his day.

Waltari has written the novel in a style that is certainly evocative of an ancient tale, though its insights into humanity are timeless.  The character of Sinuhe is entirely believable--sometimes acting foolishly or cruel, at other times wisely and with great kindness.  In short, he is every man. Through his eyes, we see the entire gamut of the human experience from the extreme cruelty of warfare to the heartfelt love of a found soul mate.  His wry, dispassionate observations about his own behavior and that of others are the great strength of The Egyptian and certainly spoke to me.  It is not a novel that I will soon forget!