A novel of an ancient China that never was. How could I pass that up? As far as taglines go it’s pithy, slightly whimsical and intriguing, with a hint of lighthearted adventure in a fanciful setting.
So, that’s the entire book in a nutshell. What surprised and pleased me the most about Bridge of Birds was how well Barry Hughart captured the essence and feel of a Chinese parable, and the way he melds fact and fantasy. Part of the pleasure of reading the book for me was a feeling of inclusion whenever I run across a historical tidbit I already knew. Makes me feel special. But most of the pleasure comes from enjoying Mr. Hughart’s unique tone and style.
The characters in his books are imbued with a humorously caricatural quality, such as Number Ten Ox, who is a consummate peasant. The villains are all portrayed in a comic light, which makes their antics and mannerisms hilarious, so that even their most dire deeds do not affect the chipper mood of the tale. Most characters are archetypic, but artfully so. Master Li, however … he just breaks all the rules. If I had a good memory I could probably think back on all the amazing characters I’ve read over the years and make some sort of list, but all I can say is: Top 3 best detective-like characters of all time, Top 5 main characters in fantasy. He’s a crazy mix of idealized justice seeking Bao Zheng, debonair Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr (not the A.C. Doyle version), ruthless softie Samuel Vimes, and the master of little gray cells Poirot. That’s how I would describe him, if I could describe him, but clearly he is incredible and unique and therefore I can’t possibly describe him.
As a last note, this book was exponentially more successful at using Ancient China as a model for a setting, unlike another recent book that tried the same thing and utterly failed and ended up with a book that was generic and colorless. So if you’re thinking of reading Under Heaven for the love of God go read anything Guy Gavriel Kay wrote before The Last Light of the Sun instead.