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!

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