The blurb on the cover describes "The Story of the Stone" as "an oriental Holmes and Watson plunked down in an Indiana Jones movie." Pretty decent summary, actually, although I'd also throw a little Puccini into the mix (the author is incredibly hard on his heroines), along with Dante Alighieri. The ancient ("Ah, if I were only ninety again...") Master Li and his faithful sidekick and beast of burden, Number Ten Ox set out to investigate the brutal death of a monk in the Valley of Sorrows in this second volume of Hughart's fantasy trilogy.
The monk appears to have died of fright in the monastery library, a scrap of forged manuscript clutched in his hand, and a very unmonkish dinner of thousand-year-old eggs and other expensive delicacies in his belly (Master Li performs an autopsy that would make Dr. G. proud).
The chief suspect is the infamous Laughing Prince. Unfortunately (actually, fortunately for the peasants whom he murdered in droves) the sadistic prince has been dead for over 700 years. Master Li and Number Ten Ox descend into the tomb of the evil prince, along with his painterly descendent, Prince Liu Pao where they find jade-encased mummies, mad Monks of Mirth, a water slide that wouldn't be out of place at Disney World, and of course, treasure and torture chambers. The one thing they don't find is the corpse of the Laughing Prince.
At least, not right away.
Master Li must call upon his friends, old, new, dead, immortal, and immoral to solve the mystery of the Laughing Prince and the Stone of Immortality. You will meet characters in this book who are to be found nowhere else in fiction, including the beautiful Moon Boy who sings and buggers his way through the ten principal Hells and the great Wheel of Reincarnation, acting as a sort of Virgil to Master Li's Dante.
The plot is complicated, but the characters and the mythical scenery of an ancient China that never was make "The Story of the Stone" a fantasy to read and reread in those dark hours when you don't think you can stand another page of the noble Frodo. Plus Barbarian readers like myself who have only a "rudimentary concept of Hell" will be exposed to the two most incredible fallacies of our educational system: "that Hell is reserved for the damned, and that the world is flat."
P.S. The world is a cube measuring 233,575 paces across.