I am an avid and lifelong fan of fantasy, but rarely indulge this preference with anything new. This is because most fantasy novels seem very much alike to me: young hero who is secretly of royal blood, wise old wizard mentor, cardboard love interest, epic quest to find legendary artifact and/or save the world, repeat ad nauseam until the author gets tired of churning out 800-plus page volumes. So instead of seeking out new fantasy books to feed my inner escapist, I tend to re-read the ones I have grown to love. Ones like Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.
What keeps this book so dear to my heart even after repeated readings is the fact that it is so different from what I think of as mainstream or “standard” fantasy. It is an exception to the all-too common rules, hinted at above, that seem to govern fantasy writing. For starters, the setting, rather than being an unimaginative Tolkien-inspired faux-Europe pastiche, is explicitly and unequivocally ancient China…as it would have been if the Taoist myths and folk legends were true. The writing style, correspondingly, has a delicious Oriental flavor, with long alliterations, poetic hyperbole, and casual references to Chinese culture scattered throughout the narrative.
There are two main characters, peasant hero Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox, and Master Li Kao, a sort of professional wise man whom Ox hires to solve the mystery of a sudden calamitous illness plaguing the children of his village. Now, the concept of a wise-man-for-hire is delightful enough, but Master Li takes it a few steps further into the realm of the unexpected by being not a serene and virtuous monk-like sage, but a drunkard ex-crook who is friends with gangsters and tells Ox things like “I’m afraid we’re going to have to murder someone, and I just hope we can find someone who deserves it.”
Number Ten Ox, for his part, is not your typical fantasy peasant hero. For one thing, he really is a simple peasant, and not the secret heir to a kingdom or a born sorcerer or anything like that. Circumstances, not destiny, drive him to undertake his adventure, and the most unusual ability he possesses is above-average physical strength (and, of course, great courage and purity of heart). Like many a fantasy hero, he is an orphan, but he lives with caring relatives, and rather than questing to broaden his horizons and escape the drudgery of his existence, he is at heart contented homebody whose only goal is curing the village children. He does broaden his horizons in the process, of course, but his experiences serve to enrich his cozy life rather than overshadow it.
The plot is certainly epic—Ox and Master Li ultimately find themselves assaying to topple the reign of a bloodthirsty, supernaturally empowered duke—but instead of rambling on for up to a thousand pages like so many fantasy authors, Hughart manages to tell his story in about three hundred. As a result, there are no scenes that the reader feels comfortable skipping; every chapter is packed with exciting action. Or heart-rending drama. Or witty humor. Or lushly described scene-setting. Or all four, with a little romance on the side. No single mood dominates the story, a feature that makes Bridge of Birds, for all its myth and whimsy, more true-to-life than any gritty detective thriller, and certainly more uplifting.
Speaking of detective stories, Bridge is as much mystery as fantasy, with the protagonists traveling far and wide across China in search of the pieces of the increasingly complex puzzle. They cross paths with a wide assortment of secondary characters, from brilliant scholars to depraved thugs to scheming noblewomen, and thanks to Hughart’s economical storytelling, not one of these encounters turns out to be superfluous to their quest. In fact, nothing in the whole book turns out to be superfluous to their quest; from the most casual expository anecdote to the most profound personal revelation on the part of the characters, it all ties together into an extremely satisfying whole by the end.
I cannot recommend this book enough to fantasy fans who are looking for a change of pace. Try it!