Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds


Barry Hughart

 

This is a fabulous novel, a plot-coupon quest fantasy done right. It takes place in ancient pseudo-China, where the protagonist must go for help after the children of his village mysteriously fall ill. Help arrives in the form of the sage Li Kao, brilliant but “with a slight flaw in his character” (read: he’s a born con man who once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine to win a bet). Together, the two make their way across the land in search of a cure, lying, cheating, and stealing (all in a good cause), escaping from the clutches of evil warlords, and eventually, uncovering a thousand-year-old evil.

 

 

Central to the book is its tone, a madcap, over-the-top parody of stereotypes and genre cliches. In addition to making it blindingly funny (the book is worth reading for Li Kao’s elaborate capers alone), this style helps the book’s serious aspects, too. Moments that would be hokey in another book are instead touching; developments that may have otherwise come across as contrived fit the style so well that this reader did not bat an eyelid. The setting is Shrek-like, mining convention for humour and ultimately drama. The characters are not especially deep, but very entertaining and vividly portrayed. The main character is a Generic Hero used well, one part Watson and one part straight guy to Li Kao, allowing the reader to share in the surprise and entertainment every time Li Kao steals the show with a new scheme. The supporting cast is equally inspired: one legendary miser is introduced ordering his cooks to sharpen their cutlery on the stone wheels of a passing cart! The plot is not only rollickingly quick after the first two chapters, it is also woven together admirably: every thread, plot coupon, riddle, seeming deus ex machina, and even some characters’ amusing quirks all come together to deliver a spectacular ending.

 

The book won a World Fantasy Award in the year of its release (1984), and deservedly so. I cannot answer as to how well it will hold up over time, but upon a first reading, this was sheer delight, one of the best books I have read in some time.

 

***

 

Looking back, more than four years since I wrote those words, I can say: yes, yes it does hold up. Wish I could say the same for the one sequel that I read…

 

You can buy Bridge of Birds from Amazon here.

 

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