Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that never was by Barry Hughart

I read this book as part of the Sword and Laser Book club

What's the book about?

This book tells the story of Yu Lu, or Number Ten Ox, and Master Li Kao. Ten Ox leaves in the village of Ku Fu when suddenly the kids of the village get struck by a mysterious illness. Ten Ox is sent to find a wise man to help them save the life of the kids and he meets Master Li, probably the smartest person in China with an slight flaw in his character. They realize that to save the kids they will have to find the Great Root of Power. 

Whit this quest they will travel all over China and finally meet the Duque of Chi'in, a terrible villain that will try his best to stop our two heroes. They o the other side embark themselves in a bigger adventure without knowing it at first. 

What was different of this book?

This is a beautiful example of magical realism. The author takes a lot of influences of China's mythology and mixes it with clever humor. Although is a fantasy book, is not overwhelmingly so. The building of the story around the fantasy part is gradual and when it reaches its climax the reader won't be able to put the book down until all the pieces fit together. There is adventure, romance, humor and a heart breaking end.

What about the main character?

In this book we have 2 main characters but there are other big role characters all through the history. 

Ten Ox is a sweet mannered peasant boy. He is strong and his humble and he is easy to love as a character. He wants to help as much as he can however he can, and his biggest motivation through all the book is making things right for the kids in his village.

On the other hand we have Master Li. Smart as he is, he has lost the innocence that would make him a "good" character. Not that he is bad, but he has that bitternes that makes characters funny and ever so sarcastic.  One of the first lines he has got me smiling from the beginning:

          Take a bowl [...] 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 civilization, bellow kan pei [...]

And I will be wise? He asked

Better' I said' You will be Chinese

That said, he is someone who will finish what he started, even if it costs  him everything. He will be the first one to praise Ten Ox when he is doubting himself. He is a cunning man but he has a good heart albeit not pure. 

The 10% moment

The example of writing that I just gave you happens at about the 10% of the book. It got me, hands down by then. You want to know what that mysterious illness is and mostly you will want to know what exactly is the flaw in Master Li's character.

Final thoughts

The resolution was not foreseeable (at least not for me) and I ended up with tears in my eyes with the beautiful ending. I know a lot of people in the S&L forum complained about the female role in the book. I have to tell you, that even though I was not crazy about it in general, I think it works with the style intended for the book.

I'm looking forward to reading the 2 next installments s of the series. 

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