Bridge of Birds, the first installment in Barry Hughart's literary trilogy The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, is a fantasy novel taking place in a version of ancient China wherein the regional folk tales and Taoist myths are all true. The gods really do meddle in the affairs of mortals (but subtly, for reasons of etiquette) and minor bits of magic can be found anywhere.Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox because of his birth order and great strength, is a humble peasant living in the village of Ku-fu, content to spend his days farming and assisting with the annual silk harvest...until one year when the abject failure of the harvest coincides with a devastating plague that infects the children—and only the children—of the village. Ox's aunt sends him to Peking with money in order to hire a wise man to solve the mystery, and he winds up with one Li Kao, an antiquated drunkard who keeps company with bandits and thugs. But despite these "slight flaws in his character," Master Li also has a well-developed sense of justice and quite possibly the keenest mind in all China, and he eagerly joins—in fact, he takes command of—Ox's quest to save the children. A quest that ultimately takes them into every conceivable corner of China, into bustling cities and deep caverns and across deserts and mountain ranges, to do business and battle (sometimes simultaneously) with brilliant scholars, horrifying monsters, scheming noblewomen, obsessive businessmen, demigods, and not a few tormented ghosts.The writing style is lush and poetic yet semi-conversational in tone, featuring devices such as alliteration, humorous exaggeration and understatement, and casual references to Chinese history and folklore. The tone is a wonderful blend of action, drama, comedy, and even romance, along with an engaging theme of mystery and discovery as Ox and Master Li gather and put together the pieces of the puzzle. Although short as fantasy novels go—it clocks in at under 300 pages—it nonetheless contains more story than many a conventional Door Stopper.Hughart wrote two sequels—The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen—which have been published in an omnibus edition with their precursor.
Contains examples of:
Adaptational Attractiveness: An in-universe example. Jade Pearl is described in a folk tale as the most beautiful girl in the world who the Star Shepherd falls in love with, but Master Li realizes that a sensible person like the Star Shepherd would have valued a smile that held all the joy and wonder in the world over mere physical beauty. Like, say, Lotus Cloud's.
Contrived Coincidence: Too many to list. Let's just say that characters keep on bumping back into each other with alarming frequency. Turns out to be justified, as someone up in the heavens really wants the heroes to succeed in their quest.
The Dog Was the Mastermind: Master Li reveals in a Wham Line that the Key Rabbit, who has been depicted up to this point as a meek, cowardly man forced to be the accessor of the Duke of Ch'in, is actually the Duke of Ch'in himself.
I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Henpecked Ho, poor fella. Also, Number Ten Ox at the end, when he rejects Lotus Cloud's offer to stay with him in favor of restoring her identity as the Princess of Birds, even though it means that he will never see her again.
Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Number Ten Ox, according to Master Li. "When I run into something that is really foul, I can counter with the potential for foulness that resides in the depths of my soul... You, on the other hand, suffer from an incurable case of purity of heart."
Kavorka Man: Lotus Cloud is one of the ever-elusive female examples of this trope.
Lamarck Was Right: The origin of Master Li's "slight flaw." His parents were criminals who robbed the Duke of Ch'in while his mother was pregnant with him, and were caught because of their greedy squabbling. The abbot who raised him had to contend with his nature asserting itself, though Master Li eventually became a reasonably virtuous man on his own. Partly because crime was boring, and solving it exciting, but baby steps.
Land Of Dragons: This is "a novel of an ancient China that never was," to which the book blurb adds, "But oh, it should have been!" Gets credit for having a more developed world that the description would imply. And only one dragon, on a little necklace.
Long List: What you tend to get if you ask Henpecked Ho a simple question.
Meaningful Echo: Number Ten Ox and Fainting Maid's first stroll through the gardens leads to an argument about whether a bird is a cuckoo or a magpie imitating a cuckoo. Later on, when Master Li has exposed Fainting Maid as the murderess of her father's concubine and lover and induced her to faint right into a deep well, he tells her father, "You are perfectly free to hear whatever you choose, but what I hear is a magpie that is imitating the sounds of a scream and a splash."
Meaningful Name: Many of them, including Fainting Maid and Lotus Cloud, when you consider that "Lotus" is the flower of forgetfulness and "Cloud" implies obscurity or veiling....
Lotus Cloud is known as the most expensive woman in all of China with good reason, although her greed extends to only pearls and jade. Anything else, and she instantly loses interest. The true reason for her yearning for pearls and jade turns out to not be simple greed, but a subconscious yearning for her true identity named Jade Pearl.
Anyone, who makes himself invulnerable by removing his heart, acquires an overwhelming lust to obtain and handle "cold things": treasure in all forms.
Motive Decay: Surprisingly averted. The Master Li and Number Ten Ox go through many epic adventures such as becoming the wealthiest men in China and meeting gods in human form, all to save the children of the village.
Mr. Vice Guy: There is a slight flaw in Li Kao's character (more than one flaw, actually, if you count "alcoholism" and "willingness to rob and murder people to achieve your goals" as two separate traits), but he's still unquestionably on the side of good and most of the more morally dubious actions he commits are done to people who thoroughly deserved it.
The Nicknamer: Lotus Cloud gives all of her suitors cutesy nicknames like "Boopsie", "Woofie", and "Pooh-Pooh".
Old Master: Master Li, in spite of the slight flaws in his character.
Plot Coupon: The bell, the ball and the flute, and the parts of the Great Root.
Polyamory: Number Ten Ox, Miser Shen, and all of Lotus Cloud's other lovers tend to get along famously, in part because all of them are decent people deep down. Master Li jokes that she ought to build a kennel for them. This is a hint as to her true nature. Li eventually realizes that while this lack of jealousy makes no sense in romantic terms, it makes perfect sense for a goddess. Suitors might be jealous, but worshippers...
You Killed My Father: Master Li considers the Duke his ancestral enemy, because one of the Duke's ancestors killed his parents (actually, they were a couple of thieves, who stole the soldiers' payroll, squabbled over the loot, and were mortally wounded by the pursuers, but meh... close enough). Later he learns one important detail: all the Duke's "ancestors" were actually the immortal Duke.
Noodle Incident: "I tied the other end of a tarred rope around the corpse's legs, and it slid silently beneath the surface and drifted down to join the others." It is mentioned that "the others" are described in lost volumes of Memoirs of Number Ten Ox, which were destroyed by Imperial Censors.
Odd Job Gods: The guild of prostitutes even petitions Heaven for a new patron deity, as the current one isn't tough and crafty enough.