Bridge of Birds

Posted by : atcampbell | On : May 5, 2008

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Thirteen people attended this discussion at the North Village Library, including one first-time attendee. Our topic was Bridge of Birds, a World Fantasy Award-winning humorous fantasy novel set in ancient China. In this book, the children of a village are all struck with a mysterious illness, and a young man named Number Ten Ox is sent out to find a wise scholar to heal them. Four of us had read Hughart before. Everyone at the meeting had started and finished Bridge of Birds.

One reader commented that she had such a good time with this book’s protagonists, the young and strong Number Ten Ox and his wise older companion, Master Li. She loved the flaw in Master Li’s character. Early in the book, she was afraid it was going to be a “plot coupon” novel, but then it twisted and got more interesting.  She felt the ongoing illness of the children was a good motor for the plot.

Another person enjoyed Master Li’s outrageous schemes, such as posing as a saint. He liked how these incredibly elaborate capers always worked. And it was great how seemingly throwaway bits often had plot implications later.

Many of us enjoyed the technology used by Master Li. We observed gunpowder, scuba, helicopters, medicine, and chemistry. Several people commented that the story took a couple of chapters to get going, and then it really took off.

One person said this book turned Chinese tales into accessible forms for Americans. He said the author clearly had read Journey to the West. He felt that if the book were written a few years earlier, it would have fit well into the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

A longtime reader said that this book is her idea of fun. She thoroughly enjoys Bridge of Birds each time she reads it. She likes how it takes episodic Chinese stories and puts a novel arc over it. It’s easy to read, but she can’t put it down.

Several people commented that this was one of the funniest books they’d read in a long time. We shared our favorite incidents. We enjoyed the entirely appropriate death of the character Fainting Maid and the crazy episodes involving Lotus Cloud and her huge collection of lovers.

One person mentioned that he read this book initially when it was new in the 80s, and it was one of the first fantasies he had read. He was pleased to see how well it held up.

Another felt it was a sign of the Apocalypse that she liked a book recommended by Kurt. She read the book slowly to enjoy it, so it wouldn’t end too soon.

Generally we loved this book, and most of us plan to seek out and read Hughart’s two followup novels of Number Ten Ox and Master Li. After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at Fuddrucker’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III