Bridge of Birds – Barry Hughart

This is the Sword and Laser pick for February and unusually for me I not only read it early but finished it before the start of the month (obviously). It’s actually out of print in the UK and I want to say it was hard to get hold of but it wasn’t really, I searched on Amazon and there it was, and quite cheap too. It’s not that long ago when buying a book meant looking in various physical book shops, compared to that browsing a website for 5 mins isn’t “hard”. What was – let’s say challenging to my patience – was that it isn’t available in the UK as an ebook. It, together with its two sequels is available in the US in ebook form for the very reasonable sum of $10. I almost persuaded Barnes and Noble’s .com site to sell me a copy but they bailed at the last minute. There was also a free audio recording (sanctioned by the author) on a blog (here if you’re interested) but I really wanted to read rather than listen to it. So I ordered the ‘dead-tree’ edition. (Some people might use the fact of buying a paper copy as a sop to their conscience in order to then go ahead and ‘acquire’ an ebook version from an ‘unofficial’ source. Some people might do that…)

Anyway, to the book itself.

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of An Ancient China That Never Was – to give it its full title – is the story of the strong but simple soul Number Ten Ox going on a quest with a hired sage, Master Li. Ox’s village suffers an unfortunate attack of poisonings of the children between the ages of 8 and 14, and Ox ventures out to try to find The Great Root of Power – the only known antidote. He soon comes across Master Li, a very learned, very old man with “a slight flaw in his character” who agrees to help him track down this item. To say that their quest takes them on a wide variety of adventures, meeting strange and wonderful people and creatures is an understatement. What it reminds me of most is The Princess Bride. It has the same sly sense of humour, of not quite parodying the fantasy setting but occasionally throwing in a line or a point of view that feels more modern. On the other hand, like Princess Bride, the essential structure and style is one of myth, of a fairy tale. It’s fair to say that this sits right in the centre of where my sensibilities lie.

I really enjoyed this book. It took me a while to get into it but it’s short and it’s an easy read. It felt episodic at first. There seemed to be a lot of needing to go find the person who would be the key to thing that would help them find the person who knew the secret… a bit like one of those old video games. What’s actually fun about that though is that a) these interludes were entertaining in themselves, b) characters started to recur and c) they ended up coming together in a way that not only made it feel more of a connected story but also gave a rationale to it (sort of – you have to have bought into the story but by that stage I had).

This is a story that contains ghosts, monsters, fights, travel, puzzles, contests, magic, medicine, science, sex and even cookery (the section on how to properly prepare porcupine is hilarious) but ultimately it’s a love story. If that sounds like it might be of interest to you – I highly recommend this book.

9/10 – a great deal of fun.

As I bought this book and then read it my TBR remained steady at 252.


About shuggie

My name is Shuggie, Paul or LatePaul depending on where you know me from. I work in computers (databases) and occasionally write about softw
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One Response to Bridge of Birds – Barry Hughart

  1. Heather says:

    One of my favorite books, I read it many years ago and I was so glad that I found the blog you mentioned so I can listen to it and enjoy it again. ( I also wanted to see if it were ok for my kids to read it). I think it’s ok for my 15 year old to read (some mention of nakedness, concubines and an allusion to having sex, nothing graphic) but not my 13 year old…. not yet
    what a great book! Can’t wait to read the others in the series.

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