Reviews: Bridge Of Birds

The most intimidating review I\'ve ever done, because this is my favorite book of all time.

It's hard to fully-articulate why you should absolutely make time in your life to read Bridge of Birds without, at least a little, negatively impacting your experience with it. Lord knows, I didn't quite go in blind, and while I still spent the whole book happily enjoying myself, it had a slight negative impact on my experience.

But I'm still going to try, because if even one person tries this book who'd never heard of it before, that'll be a victory.

First up, the setting. Bridge of Birds takes place in a place that defies the ordinary norms of the Fantasy genre: Tang Dynasty China at one of the peaks of its wealth, science, and power. It pops at the seams with energy as it draws the reader into what is likely a place that's just alien enough to be deeply intriguing, yet just familiar enough that they don't feel at all lost and confused, and explains just enough that you never feel like you're having to choke down boring exposition. That's really hard, and my hat's off to Mr. Hughart.

Second, the structure. It's a beautiful, ticking timepiece of a book. When the trope page says everything that's not immediately important will eventually be important, they are not wrong, and to say anything else would be to damage the work for you.

Third, the characters. Not just the main duo of Ox, the humble-but-wise peasant, and Li Kuo, the brilliant-but-flawed genius, but all of the side characters. They are all either entertainingly evil, hilariously flawed, heartbreakingly human, or some combination thereoff. Again, not to spoil, but the ending is one of the few things I've actually cried at in my life, because of how it works for them.

Finally, the plot. Again, to avoid spoilers, it starts with the duo trying to achieve a very humble, human problem, and all their other adventures across the length and breadth of the land feed into that. And any grand cosmic plots they land in in the meanwhile are still part of that.

For all of these reasons, this is the best book I've ever read, and I can't recommend it enough.

Eight Middle-of-the-Road Gentlemen

...Yeah, that joke's reaching.

Eight Skilled Gentlemen is, sadly, the last book in the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. I say sadly because it represents a few steps forward and back from the last title, and I wish that publisher mismanagement hadn't sunk the series.

It does represent some improvement from The Story of the Stone. The plot is a bit deeper, and while the first book's amazing structure isn't quite there, it's more of a conventional adventure and intrigue story than Stone, so it doesn't hurt it as much.

And while most of the characters aren't at the same level as Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn, (with the shamaness love interest in particular being such a non-character that I can't even remember her name) most of the side cast are fairly well-sketched.

Also, while the setting continues the theme of "China in decline," it isn't nearly as dreary as last time. In particular, a few forces are portrayed as stemming the tide of corruption throughout the story, and more fun is poked at the problems than just how much they suck and how everyone hates them. Plus, a lot of it focuses on a fascinating topic that is rarely addressed even within Chinese history and fiction; the "aboriginal" Chinese and their culture, to great effect.

Finally, the main plot and the main villain are both very well-done story elements. This is easily the most well-sketched and complex antagonist in the series, and his plan the broadest in scope.

It's not really the same kind of great story Bridge of Birds was, but it's a good enough fantasy yarn on its own in a way The Story of the Stone wasn't. And while it lacks Stone's deeper themes and ambitions as a literary work, it's more entertaining as a book.

That's why I'm sad that there were no further books in the series, even if none of them quite lived up to the original. Because if future titles were on this level of quality, care, and general entertainment value, I'd still enjoy reading them right through my disappointment at their failure to live up to my favorite book of all time.

Stones aren\'t as interesting as birds; or, the complex reasons why the sequel doesn\'t live up to the original.

The Story of the Stone is not a bad book. On the contrary, on its own merits it's a fine work of "literary" fantasy fiction and an interesting trip into the world of Tang China. Unfortunately, it is also not in the same ballpark as its predecessor, and so suffers by comparison.

First, what the book does right: characterization. Every major character could either stand up with those from Bridge of Birds or is even better. Grief of Dawn and Moon Boy are two of the best side characters in the entire series, each one incredibly well-developed, capable, and human. The lead duo, while slipping a bit into character exaggeration, particularly Ox's humble wisdom mixed with ignorance, remain incredibly entertaining. And the .lead villain is fascinatingly unconventional and well-hidden, while the undead chiang shih is creepy as hell, and dispels much of the high-camp that has grown up around the monster over time.

Unfortunately... well, remember how Bridge of Birds was a beautiful ticking timepiece of structure, set in an odyssey through a Fantasy China that seemed ripe for adventure everywhere? The Story of the Stone is, in many ways, the exact opposite. It's flabbier than Bridge, lacking much of the set-up with a punchline chapters later that made reading it such a delight. The smaller scope of the plot, while not a bad thing in and of itself, means that we see so much less of China. Many side characters are superfluous in a way the last book's never were.

And while there's always just enough humor to prevent reading it from becoming unpleasant, Fantasy China is much drearier here. Master Li opens the novel with a bunch of angry complaints about how the Neo-Confucians are ruining the country, and while this is important set-up, it's also why this book has problems. If the last novel was set in an ancient China at its height, this one shows a China in decline. The rot at the heart of the country must be constantly referenced, and doing so sucks much of the joy out of the story. We also see much less of it, with the story moving between a few major locations rather than across the vast expanses of the country.

Finally, the plot. It's weak. Not terrible, but weak. The lower stakes and lack of initial personal investment in its resolution for the four major characters hamstring it, and while the finale is very strong, and the mysteries quite clever, it takes far too long to get to those good parts.

Again, I cannot stress enough that The Story of the Stone is not a bad book. I still regard Li's final speech as an incredible piece of literature, and the characterization is, if anything, even stronger than the last novel's. But... the last book was one big bright spot that built and built, and this book is a bunch of bright spots hazily connected by grey. Dampen expectations, is all I'm saying.
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