My next Forgotten Book review is Bridge of Birds. It hasn’t been forgotten (it and its sequels have been re-released in a three-book volume) so much as criminally under-marketed. I first came across a reference to Master Li and Number Ten Ox in a book by Spider Robinson, The Free Lunch. Spider Robinson, a writer I admire, loved these two characters enough to give them a place in the mythic-China zone of Dreamland, a near-future theme park. This peaked my interest so I did some research and found Barry Hughart’s splendid three-book set, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. The first book in the little series is Bridge of Birds.
It’s hard to label this wonderful book. Technically it’s mythic-historic fantasy. It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a picaresque quest-adventure. The main character is a large and innocent peasant, abbey-educated, who politely introduces himself to the reader in the first lines: “I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the four corners of the world. My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.”
To save the children of his village, Number Ten Ox journeys to Peking in search of a wise man on the Street of Eyes. He finds the ancient scholar and reprobate, Master Li: “My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character.” The two of them commence upon a quest (and crime-spree) that takes them across ancient China in pursuit of the Great Root of Power, a mythic plant. In the process they and the reader meet the most amazing collection of characters I have ever encountered.
Bridge of Birds will render you helpless with laughter and bring you to tears, the end cannot be anticipated or described, and you will never forget it. Find it. Read it. Share it with all your friends.