Wednesday, October 6, 2010

1985 World Fantasy Award (tie) – BRIDGE OF BIRDS by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds tied with Mythago Wood for the World Fantasy Award in 1985. There are interesting comparisons, but they are two dramatically different novels. Hughart’s work actually addresses one of my pet peeves about fantasy novels – the fact that they draw so heavily on medieval European tropes – by setting his work in seventh century China and drawing heavily upon Chinese folktales to tell his fantasy adventure (with a heavy comedic element).

Tragedy strikes the small village of Ku-fu when all of its children accidentally ingest poison while cultivating silk worms; they are all completely paralyzed and doomed to a slow death unless an improbable cure can be found. The young Number Ten Ox is tasked with hiring a sage to help solve the problem, and he gets the century old Li Kao at a discount because the sage has a slight flaw in his character. Li Kao is extremely amusing and fun, as he concocts elaborate multi-stage plans to find a powerful ginseng root. These plans usually involve an elaborate con game to gain a small fortune followed by a confrontation with a cruel and powerful Chinese autocrat that leaves Number Ten Ox and Li Kao in an impossible bind that they somehow escape. Eventually, the novel turns into a very fast-paced and elaborate quest.

It can read a bit like China’s greatest hits from a very western point of view. It doesn’t feel of China. For instance, Ku-fu has a piece of the Great Wall next to it despite being hundreds of miles off course due to bureaucratic mistake. Why? Because it’s China (and because it’s a funny story). But even if it does not feel one-hundred percent authentic, it does seem solidly researched, and it captures the mood of Chinese folktales quite well.

Another slight complaint would be the lack of strong female characters - they do tend to be either beautiful and vapid or mean and shrewish. It’s not incredibly egregious, and I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that if I hadn’t just read Mythago Wood, not to mention the super-macho Amber books I’ve been working my way through for a future review. It’s been a while now since I’ve seen a strong female character in one of these novels. Overall, though, this novel was great fun.

Grade: B+

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