Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds
Barry Hughart, 1985, 288p.
Based loosely on Chinese folktales and the form of the Taoist novel, this is a semi-episodic quest adventure to save the children of a village who have been poisoned by local (yet oddly omnipresent) hucksters. Along the way, our heroes fall sideways into a quest of divine proportion. Our hero and narrator is Number Ten Ox, the village lummox. He is dispatched to find a sage to cure the children, and finds Master Li, an impossibly old drunk with "a slight flaw in his character". The episodes in the quests have a cyclical form, with repeated elements and situations mixed with inventive and suitably unlikely palaces, magic and monsters.

Full disclosure requires that I mention that fantasy and folk stories are two genres that I struggle to enjoy. The fact that this novel kept my interest says a fair bit about its execution. Folk stories in particular, with their tendency towards archetypes and evil, magic and beasts, feel inhuman and didactic to me. The supposed Taoist form here avoids my least favoured aspect of the folk story: the innocent. Even the divine are fallen and foolish, and the human tends towards the foreground.

This book felt to me like "Chinese Takeout" — by consensus it is isn't based deeply in any reality, enjoyable to chow down on but ultimately not terribly substantive. I was hungry an hour later. Charm, some wit, fairly skilled execution. A bit cardboardy and... a strong suspicion that most of these dishes have the same base sauce.

Also, way, way too salty.

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