The Story of the Stone is the second book in the much-underappreciated Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series by Barry Hughart. I read (and reviewed here) the first of the series, Bridge of Birds, as part of a book club last year and was very impressed with the novel. Bridge of Birds was a sneaky book, with a number of our members dismissing it early on only to have every single reader fall in love with its subtle humor and themes by the end of the story. However, a huge part of the joy of reading Bridge of Birds was the surprise of discovering how much lay beneath the surface of such an unassuming book. Going into The Story of the Stone a reader will be much more on-guard towards Hughart’s subtlety and does that make it harder to enjoy The Story of the Stone?
For me, the answer was both yes and no. Hughart is still a brilliant writer and his clever ideas, witty scenes, and humorous dialogue still shine through in this second installation. He is one of the few authors I have read that remind me of the great Terry Pratchett, as both of them display a talent for hiding profound messages in silly and fun stories. Unfortunately, the reveals and subtleties of The Story of the Stone didn’t quite have the mind-blowing effect that they did in the first book once you know what to look for. Yet, even though I was much more easily able to guess the direction of the second book’s plot it still didn’t keep me from loving the outcome.
The Story of the Stone picks up shortly after Bridge of Birds ends and shows us a Master Li and Ox who are bored with their daily routine. Everything in their lives is going swimmingly and they are going out of their minds at the plainness of it. So, when Master Li is asked to come investigate the mysterious resurrection of a mad prince, the pair fall over themselves to look into this supposed second coming. The prince was a scientist who performed gruesome medical experiments on his people in the pursuit of immortality. His machinations poisoned the beautiful land he rules, killed and deformed a number of his subjects, and drove their society into ruin. Upon his death, he promised to return – and now a century later there are signs that the promise is coming true. Things such as a mad disembodied voice with the prince’s cackle can be heard in the night. Deformed mummers with the prince’s regalia are appearing and disappearing without a trace. Parts of the kingdom’s wildlife is dying with no explanation. It is up to Li and Ox to determine how to stop the second coming of the prince.
Much like the first book, The Story of the Stone has a fairly linear structure. Li and Ox are showed a handful of seemingly supernatural occurrences and one by one look into, and debunk, how they were achieved. While doing this Hughart masterfully weaves pseudo-Chinese folklore into the worldbuilding and humor into the character interactions. Li and Ox are a memorable pain that remains delightful to follow, and the new support cast rivals them in eccentricities. It would be had to argue that Hughart’s characters are unoriginal. As I mentioned before, the mystery in The Story of the Stone was a lot easier to solve given my experiences with Bridge of Birds, but I still found it intriguing enough to read the book in a single sitting. All of my compliments to the prose, worldbuilding, and pacing in Bridge of Birds equally apply to The Story of the Stone.
Much like Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone is an intriguing and entertaining journey through pseudo-Chinese folklore with a lovable cast. Although I liked Bridge of Birds more, it is only because my expectations were so much higher for Hughart’s second book. Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are one of the great underappreciated gems of the fantasy genre and I implore you to pick these books up when you can. You will not regret discovering what lays below the surface of these seemingly innocent books.
Rating: The Story of the Stone – 9.5/10