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Bridge of Birds:
A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

Barry Hughart
"My family name is Li and my given name is Kao and there is a slight flaw in my character." Thus does Master Li, who lives under the sign of the half-closed eye, introduce himself to Number Ten Ox, a peasant lad every bit as strong as his name suggests, but not nearly as dumb.

Ox has come to Peking to hire a Master to solve the mysterious ailment that has all of the children of his home village in its grasp, lying in a coma, apparently slowly dieing. But all of the Masters who reside in the Street of the All-Seeing Eye want too much for his village to pay before they will even consider taking the case... and then he finds the aged Master Li, dead drunk in his tiny ramshackle shack in an alley, with that half-closed eye over the door.

Master Li agres to take the case, and, after many hair-raising, often hilarious, sometimes touching, adventures, he and Ox manage to solve the case, answer ancient riddles, destroy a rapacious tyrant, and re-unite immortal lovers who have been seperated for centuries. The pace is fast, and never a moment's rest for the weary.

All is resolved more-or-less tidily and quite satisfactorily, leaving this reader somewhat the feeling of having just completed a ride on a particularly good roller-coaster.

Ox and Master Li are wonderful characters, complementing each other admirably. Ox, the narrator of their adventures, is actually quite bright and quick of mind, for all his peasant background; and that peasant upbringing has left him with a charming lack of what many would consider proper morals or scruples. In this he is perfectly suited to be Master Li's assistant, as Master Li has no morals at all -- well, he has a fairly strict moral code of his own by which he lives, but it's not even nearly that of Society.

Most people would probably describe Master Li as a Bad Man -- he drinks like a fish when he's not actually on a case and steals almost anything that isn't nailed down (and anything he can pry loose, in his opinion, isn't nailed down...) and quite willing to commit casual murders if that's what it takes to solve his cases.

Incredibly ancient (he gets older between this book and the next, at that), tiny and so wrinkled that sometimes his eyes disappear among the wrinkles, he is still brilliant, devious and fast with a knife when needed. Master Li goes into action riding on Ox's shoulders -- between them, there are very few foes natural or supernatural that they can't defeat.

And the ones they can't defeat outright, Master Li swindles.

In the course of this book, Ox and Master Li find themselves in and out of danger with a bewildering frequency, and have to solve a number of apparenly irrelevant riddles and mysteries before they can arrive at the ultimate cure for the children of Ox's village.

A wonderful book, highly recommended, as are the two sequels, "The Story of the Stone" and "Eight Skilled Gentlemen" (Ox, being an orphan, decides to relocate to the city as Master Li's permanent assistant and biographer).

Master Li and Ox live in "an ancient China that never was", as the book's subtitle explains; a China that is a wonderful place, with actual gods and demons and dragons and what not wandering around and fantastic magic at every hand.

(And thereby hangs a recommendation: if you enjoy the adventures of Master Li and Ox, i cannot recommend too highly the similarly-themed but even-more-elegantly-written adventures of Kai Lung, Ernest Bramah's itinerant story teller in a similarly fabulous ancient-China-that-never-was; "Kai Lung's Golden Hours" would probably be a good place to start, and i believe it's currently available...)
While looking for a copy of the cover art of this book -- the ones on Amazon were either modified or Way Too Big -- i found this japanese cover; i can't tell whether it's for a Japanese translation of the book, or for a manga version -- but i thought it was pretty enough to include on this page.

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