Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bridge of Birds

This past summer, I was engrossed by Manley Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?, a collection of speculative fiction set in the mountains of Appalachia. Though I didn't write about it, it was among the best things I read this year. Wellman studied and explored the Appalachians in North Carolina and nailed not just their dialect but also their storytelling patterns, then mixed them in with the weird, elements used most successfully by H. P. Lovecraft and his followers. The result was endearing and thrilling all at the same time, a collection that was difficult to put down. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart follows the same pattern—setting a story of the supernatural in a culture most readers are not familiar with and delighting the reader by revealing both the culture and the story in measured doses. However, instead of the rural United States, Hughart set Bridge of Birds in historic China (around 640 AD according to the narrator) in what the subtitle to the novel describes as "An Ancient China that Never Was."
When the children of his village are stricken by an unknown plague, Number Ten Ox (whose given name is Lu Yu) goes to Peking to hire a scholar to help the children and their grieving families. He finds Li Kao in a shop with the sign of a half-closed, and Li Kao takes the case because it gives him an immediate income with which he can buy wine. Li Kao admits to Ox that he has a "slight flaw in his character," but his low rate of hire is all Ox needs, and they set off to find a cure for the plague. What follows is a rambling tour of medieval China and its mythology, alternately funny and thrilling as all great legends and myths are.
What makes Bridge of Birds excel is its wonderful characterization. Number Ten Ox and Li Kao are distinct characters, well-rounded, who develop during the course of the story. Li Kao is an elderly man, so his development comes in the form of gradual revelation to the reader. Ox, on the other hand, is a young man, and he grows through the course of the novel. In addition, they have two distinct voices and tons of chemistry between them, offering differing perspectives on the events that take place in the course of the novel. Ox is actually the narrator, though he writes in a third-person style, but he is careful to note his own naivete and assumptions through the novel. As may be expected, it is the moments when those weaknesses are most exposed and when Li Kao steps in that are the most humorous.
In addition, minor characters are fully worked out as well. Hughart plays on the contradictory traits of both simplicity and insight of the stereotypical Chinese story, so you can get a good idea of the personalities of characters like Miser Shen, Henpecked Ho, and Key Rabbit just by their names. But they grow in the course of the novel into something beyond their stereotypes—valuable players in the story that unfolds.
That story follows the rough structure of the detective story, but there is no way that the reader can solve the mystery of who started the plague in Ox's village and why. This is not to say that you can't figure out elements of it, but putting it together requires pieces that aren't given to the reader until the climax. And that's okay, because while the format is one of mystery, it should not be the first reason to read Bridge of Birds. It's the intricate and lovingly crafted story and the full, wonderful characters.
I think one should also be careful in assigning Bridge of Birds as strictly a speculative fiction novel. There are gods and a little magic, but they are elements of the setting more than the focus of the storytelling. In that way, Bridge of Birds reminds me of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, with their emphasis on storytelling in different cultures more than adherence to any kind of genre rules. In fact, when I finished the novel, I immediately wanted more and began doing research to find the other two books in the series. That research led to my discovery that this novel won the World Fantasy Award in 1985 for best novel. And I also learned that Hughart stopped writing the series after the third book because he didn't want to become pigeon-holed:
It's simply that I'd taken it as far as I could. Oh, I could come up with more ingenious plots and interesting characters and so on, but the Ox/Master Li format had become just that, a format, and no matter how well I wrote I'd just be repeating myself. Many writers are content to settle down with an endless if predictable series, but I'd be miserable… (
That kind of insight into the writing process is, to me, indicative of the thoughtfulness that Hughart put into Bridge of Birds, making it a novel to be treasured and reread on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, such a recommendation comes at a price: Bridge of Birds is available new for the price of a new paperback, but getting the other two books can get a little pricey. However, if you have a Kindle or an app that uses Kindle, you can find the whole series in one omnibus edition on Amazon for a little more than the cost of the first book in paperback (yet another argument for ebooks). And I thoroughly recommend that you read as much of this author as you can. Bridge of Birds will delight you in numerous ways…and then when you're done, go pick up Wellman's Who Fears the Devil? also.

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