5 stars,  fantasy

Fantasy Review: ‘Bridge of Birds’ by Barry Hughart

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure.

The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures—and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.

The author claims that this is a novel of an ancient China that never was. But, oh…it should have been!


The full title of this book is Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was but because that is very long and I don’t want to keep typing it, we’re going to go with Bridge of Birds.  

When Goodreads first launched its ‘Recommendations’ feature, I wasn’t convinced; it was kind of predictable.  One time, however, it threw up Bridge of Birds.  Written in the 1980s, it was my favourite kind of curve ball: one generated from books that I’ve read and loved but written some 20 years before any of them.  When I won a prize during Roof Beam Reader‘s Magical March event, I fumbled around a bit but then remembered this and went straight for it.

Bridge of Birds more than lived up to its recommendation.  It is beautiful.  Absolutely, unequivocally and exotically beautiful.  The prose reads like poetry and even when I didn’t know what was going on or where the plot was going, I was happy just to be spending time reading such wonderful words.

The story has a clear ring of a fable: a village in the Chinese countryside steeped in legends is struck by a plague that puts all of its children into a coma.  The unlikely hero, Number Ten Ox, is sent to found out a champion and ends up pursuing an ultra powerful ginseng root across China.  Along the way, he encounters Li Kao (the man with a flaw in his character), barbaric rulers, myths made real, fantastical monsters, labyrinths, treasure, the ghosts of star-crossed lovers, sword dancing, fireworks and the wisest of the wisemen.  It has an ethereal, magical feel to it that is utterly captivating and it almost sparkles.

There are so many side stories (from the amusing to the tragic) and odd characters featured that it’s just impossible to comment on them and do them justice.  What you will get is the richest tapestry of randomness that it is possible to find.  Hughart makes most other fantasy authors look predictable, although that could be a downside if you like your stories linear.

Even though I could barely have loved it more, I can see why some people wouldn’t like it at all.  If Goodreads is anything to go by, it’s absolutely a love or hate book.  Its random quality was what made it for me but it could be the flip side for another reader.  If you’re looking for a concrete plot and a clear narrative, you’ll probably finish Bridge of Birds wanting to kill Barry Hughart.  If you have the time and inclination to amble through some Chinese mythology and indulge in some whimsy, chances are you’ll end up loving this as much as I did.

“Take a large bowl”, [Li Kao] said.  “Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilisation, bellow kan pei…and drink to the dregs.”  Procupio stared at [Li Kao]. “And I will be wise?”, he asked.  “Better”, [Li Kao] said, “You will be Chinese”.

Overall: This is one of my absolute favourite books so far this year.  It was when I read it and it still is a couple of months later.  It is one of the most abstract stories that I have ever read and I could gush about it all day.  My personal library will one day contain everything that Hughart has ever written and I can’t wait.

Date finished:  15 June 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Won from Roof Beam Reader
Genre:  Fantasy
Published: by Del Rey in April 1985