The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart

“You Peking weaklings call these things flies?” he yelled. “Back in Soochow we have flies so big that we clip their wings, hitch them to plows, and use them for oxen!”

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten OxIt would be hard to find a more original fantasy series than The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. Set in “an ancient China that never was,” the series is a delicious concoction of Chinese mythology, detective fiction, epic fantasy quests, and ghost stories, sprinkled with generous helpings of ribald humor and romance.

The Kindle edition I read is an omnibus edition of all three novels featuring the humble narrator Number Ten Ox and his master, the sage Li Kao, who has “a slight flaw in his character.” The first book in the series, Bridge of Birds, won the World Fantasy Award in 1985, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 1986. Bridge of Birds was followed by The Story of the Stone in 1988 and Eight Skilled Gentlemen in 1991.

This was my third reading of Bridge of Birds, and the first time I had read any of its sequels. Bridge of Birds is clearly the gem of this collection, a stand-out novel in every way. It has great narrative voice, it’s by turns funny, suspenseful, and heartbreaking, and it’s the kind of grand epic adventure that I really love. The plot summary from Goodreads describes it well:

When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure.

The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures—and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.

The author claims that this is a novel of an ancient China that never was. But, oh…it should have been!

The story is complex and detailed enough that I found myself just as enthralled with it this time as I was the first two times I read it.

The Story of the Stone, on the other hand, was a bit of a letdown, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen is definitely the weakest of the three stories. Both stories lack the the epic plot of Bridge of Birds, but they still have many of its positive qualities: enjoyable banter between the two main characters, colorful secondary characters, exotic creatures and monsters, and a light-hearted humor. The biggest problem I had with both sequels was getting lost in all the esoteric ancient lore. Some of it was relevant to the story, but most seemed like baroque decoration that bogged the narratives down.

Still, all three novels are tremendously entertaining, and the first two even have moments of tremendous depth and poignancy. The price of the omnibus is worth it for Bridge of Birds alone, with The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen a nice bonus.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart
Kindle edition Burton (MI): Subterranean Press, 2011
Printed length: 652 pages

An omnibus of the novels:
Bridge of Birds
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984

The Story of the Stone
New York: Doubleday, 1988

Eight Skilled Gentlemen
New York: Doubleday, 1991

 

Deacon Nick

Nick Senger is a husband, a father of four, and a Catholic school teacher, vice principal and technology coordinator. He taught junior high literature and writing for over 25 years, and has been a Catholic school educator since 1990. In 2001 he was named a Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the National Catholic Education Association.

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