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Friday, August 07, 2009

cover of Bridge of Birds

This delightful, entertaining book is written in the style of Chinese stories, and set in an ancient China filled with magic, monsters, and gods. The story is narrated by Yu Lu, known as Number Ten Ox, from the village of Ku-Fu as he goes to find help to save the children of the village who have been accidentally poisoned. He goes to Peking to find a sage who will help, but they all turn their noses up at his bag of copper coins-- until he stumbles upon an alley where the ancient, drunken Li Kao is slumbering-- a sage who always introduces himself with the fact that he has "a slight flaw in his character." As it turns out, Li Kao may be the only man who would have been capable of helping Number Ten Ox and his village, because their quest for the great root of power which may cure the children leads them all over the country, facing powerful humans, labyrinths, and terrible monsters, until they eventually realize their quest overlaps with the story of minor deity, the princess of birds, who was unwittingly betrayed by her handmaidens and lost divine protection and access to heaven.

The tone of this book is perfectly suited to the setting of the story and the characters. Every time Li Kao introduces himself, he mentions that slight flaw in his character. More than once, the two adventurers face near-certain death, and before they dive in they decide what they will request the Yama Kings to let them be reborn as-- for Li Kao, a sloth, and for Number Ten Ox, a cloud. As they gather and lose other members of their parties, this becomes a recurring refrain as they invite their friends to join them in declaring what they will ask to come back as just before they face deadly danger together.

At first, this story seems to be just a wandering tale of strange encounters, but eventually Li Kao puts together the pieces of the story, and it seems that every little detail is a piece of the puzzle-- even the story of the village of Ku Fu and the section of wall that doesn't connect to any of the rest of the Great Wall because the general building it had a dream where he met the August Personage of Jade who adjusted his maps. All the strange characters they meet along the way seem to have a part to play or some key piece of information that allows Li Kao eventually to put the entire puzzle together-- Miser Shen, who later falls in love with Lotus Cloud and wants to be reborn as a tree named "Old Generosity"; the scholar Henpecked Ho and his daughter Fainting Maid, who always falls two steps back and six to the left; the Ancestress and the fearsome Duke of Ch'in, and even the greedy villagers Ma the Grub and Pawnbroker Fang.

The magnificent ending is completely satisfyint and beautiful, and none of the pieces of the story seemed forced when I finally discovered the whole story of what Li Kao and Number Ten Ox's quest was really about, and who was guiding things all along with an unseen hand.

Title:Bridge of Birds
Author:Barry Hughart
Date published:1984
Genre:Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Number of pages:248
Notes:loaned to me by Catey


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