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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

cover of 'The Story of the Stone'

Another story of the adventures of the brilliant Master Li and his stout peasant assistant Number Ten Ox in an ancient China filled with myths and monsters, with a new mystery for them to unravel. A monk from the Valley of Sorrows comes to seek the assistance of Master Li, because one of the monks has died strangely (perhaps murdered), and the Laughing Prince has been seen-- a psychotic ruler of the valley generations ago who destroyed the beautiful land with his mines, and who experimented on peasant "volunteers" to learn anatomy. Part of this mystery is a strange fragment of a manuscript that the dead monk had found, which delights Master Li immensely and is what initially draws him in to the mystery-- a forgery so beautiful and perfect in form and calligraphy, but so obviously a forgery by the content, with words and phrases that the original author would never choose.

Master Li and Ox travel to the Valley of the Sorrows, where the meet with the monks and the current prince of the valley, and Li does an autopsy on the dead monk (discoursing all the while on the various emotions seated in the organs he is removing, and the strengths and weaknesses of the character of Brother Squint-Eyes), when strange events like the ones described to them occur-- another monk dies, as if from fright; a strange, compelling noise, and another section of the vegetation in the valley dead, with a clear demarcation from live greenery. They go with Prince Liu Pao to look for the tomb of his psychotic ancestor, so he can tell his people that the Laughing Prince is still dead and in his grave So, Li and Ox take soil samples and travel to find a "sound-master" who can help them understand the strange noise they heard. So, they add Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn (the only woman who can control him) to their little group of adventurers, and make their way to understand what is really going on. They listen to all the folk tales and children's stories in the valley of the sorrows for anything relating to the stone that the Laughing Prince apparently worshipped (according to Master Li), and when Grief of Dawn (whom they all love), they make a vision-trip to Hell (by way of hallucinogenic mushrooms) to unravel more of the story and also find out where to find the one rare item that will cure her. In the end, they all see what has really been going on, have their own run-in with the moldering Laughing Prince, and come to understand both what the stone is, and what the connection is between Grief of Dawn and Moon Boy is (why the act as if they were two halves of the same soul), and their part in the same story. As Master Li works his way through it, he mentions instances of other people encountering this stone, who exclaimed "evil!" and threw it away, but he gradually comes around to a different interpretation of these stories-- that it is not the stone itself that is evil. Along the way to solving the mystery, they also learn more about the Laughing Prince, and how he drove himself insane; as Master Li tells Ox, "show me a quest for personal immortality and I'll show you a path through the slaughterhouse, and the incense of personal divinity is the stench of other people's corpses."

For some reason, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I remember liking Bridge of Birds. The end of that book is amazing and beautiful, but for some reason I had a hard time getting into it-- I don't know if it was easier to get into this one because I'm more familiar with the style and the sense of humor, or perhaps because the relationship between Master Li and Number Ten Ox is more established and easier to go along with, or something else... This one also seemed a bit less like a disjointed string of loosely related adventures than the other; while there are some strange and entertaining side-jaunts here, they were all pretty directly tied to the main mystery, or seeking something or someone to help solve it.

Title:The Story of the Stone
Author:Barry Hughart
Date published:1998
Series:Master Li Chronicles; sequel to Bridge of Birds (read 8/2009)
Number of pages:289
Notes:loan from Catey


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