The pun in my title would work a lot better if this book had been bad, but alas, it was amazing. Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart, is an underappreciated fantasy gem from the 80’s that I feel more people should know about. On the surface, it is a simple and elegant alternative history story set inChina, describing the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox in dealing with a mysterious disease. The book is told in style reminiscent of a traditional fable and jumps between many small stories with clear morals that seem loosely connected. However, under the seemingly shallow exterior of this tale lies a deep and complex story that is just waiting to be discovered.
As mentioned, the plot of Bridge of Birds is ostensibly a simple one: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this malady, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates the venerable Master Li who agrees to assist him. They identify a potential cure to the plague, a rare root of power, and go on a multi-stage quest to find it. Simple, clean, clear – that is how the plot of Bridge of Birds portrays itself. It is a lie. There is a lot going on in this book, much of it below the surface. There are three or four stories beautifully intertwined in the book, and the deeper you go, the more you will realize that the book has a lot more going on than simple morals. It is a cleverly crafted, and intensely planned, novel that will lure you in with its great humor and fun antics, and pull the rug out from under you.
Speaking of humor, the book is hilarious. Not in the typical laugh-out-loud way, but in a more contextual hilarity sort of way. Each chapter functions as a small tale where the Ox learns a valuable lesson; and the themes rotate between wisdom, hilarity, and melancholy. The full cast of the book is massive for its size, with each chapter often introducing new characters that sometimes only stick around until the end of that section. While many of these characters are fairly shallow and one dimensional, a number of the cast (in particular Li and Ox) feel both like they have a nice depth to them and like they go through some good character arcs.
If you are a long time reader of the site you will know that I am a huge sucker for powerful narrative techniques, and Bridge of Birds delivers on this in spades. I am not Chinese, but I got the distinct impression that Barry Hughart had a good understanding of the country’s lore and storytelling styles – as the book feels like it was lifted straight out of Chinese fable. Hughart uses this narrative style to make the book feel welcoming and warm to all ages, even when there are some truly gruesome and violent scenes. I initially thought that this would be a great book to read to my someday children until I saw what the upbeat tone hid under the surface. The style serves to make the story feel more emotionally impactful and deep, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the narrative effect than a quote from the book itself: “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can”.
The prose and writing are also top-notch. There were numerous times that Hughart’s descriptives, of both positive and negative experiences, elicited a physical response from me due to their evocative nature. Hughart has crafted a book that is endlessly quotable, with many lines burning themselves into my memory out of pure brilliance. Which brings me to what I would consider Bridge of Bird’s strongest attribute – it is incredibly memorable. For such a small book, it holds an impressive emotional weight. I can still remember almost every chapter clearly after finishing it, and I already want to reread it to see what I missed. Everything in the book had a profound way of coming together in the end, and I bet I missed a ton of small hints and nods as I bumbled my way through the tale.
Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece and one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. This small book was a part of our yearly book club and now has the esteemed honor of being our highest rated book – ever. Every one of us who picked it up was moved by its words and clever philosophies, and I would be willing to bet money that the effect is not localized to us. If you haven’t had the chance to read this incredible book, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. For I may have a small flaw in my character, but my recommendation for this book is certainly not a part of it.
Rating: Bridge of Birds – 10/10