Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Barry Hughart, may he rest in peace, served in the United States Air Force from 1956 to 1960 during the Korean War. During Hugharts military service he began to develop his lifelong interest in China that led him to plan a series set in “an Ancient China that never was”, thus the inspiration for Bridge of Birds. Published in 1984, Bridge of Birds went on to win the 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel and also won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 1986, followed by The Story of the Stone in 1988 and Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1990. The plan was for Barry to publish several stories in this world, but due to problems with the publishers his writing career was cut short and he never wrote again. In his short writing career, he manage to produce one of the most creative and inspiration stories you will ever read. It is quite simply a masterpiece of imagination and execution!

At first glance, Bridge of Birds is a simple alternative history story set in an Ancient China that never was. The story revolves around the journey of Master Li and Number Ten Ox as they look to find a cure for a mysterious disease across the land. Barry Hugharts writing style reads more like ancient fables with short, periodic stories connected all throughout the book by moral achievements. We will feel the highest highs as well as the lowest lows as the emotions in this book jump write off the page. This may seem like a shallow description but buried deep the surface are wonderful themes and revelations everyone should enjoy.

The plot in Bridge of Birds is quiet simple: the young Number Ten Ox lives in a small village that falls victim to a plague. In order to heal this disease, Ox goes to a nearby city to find a wise man. There, he locates 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. The plot can be deceiving though because throughout the journey there are several smaller journeys our two characters must take and you will have lots of fun and laugh the whole way through.

Humor is another big plus for this novel as almost every chapter contains several small quips that always gave me a good chuckle and with a book of less than 300 pages, I flew through it in no time. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom. Once you read this book, its marvels and beauty will stay with you for a long time. Anybody looking to jump into an alternative history fable type story with good humor, and amazing moral realizations would enjoy this story.

The emotional and creative impacts that Barry Hughart will show you in Bridge of Birds I can only describe as literary perfection. All the little jokes, hints, threads, themes, and story come together beautifully in the end and will leave you in a wonderful state of mind. When we first meet Master Li he states, “My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character,” I can tell you there is no flaw in the execution and wonder of a Bridge of Birds and I hope you will revisit it time and time again!


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