5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Definitely Not 'Confucius Say...',
This review is from: Bridge of Birds (Mass Market Paperback)
This is a fairy tale built for the Orient - or more precisely, a fairy tale with an Oriental flavor written for the enjoyment of poor, deprived Occidentals who have never had the benefit of hearing some of these Chinese legends. Starting with Number Ten Ox (whose name is appropriately descriptive) and his village of Ku-fu, we are dropped into a China of ancient history. The village children, stricken with a strange malady that leaves them comatose and rigid, force Number Ten Ox to seek a scholar to unravel the mystery of their affliction. What he ends up contracting for is ancient Master Li Kao, who has a 'slight flaw in his character', which is all Ox can afford. Master Li determines that the only thing to save the children is the Great Root of Power, and Li and Ox proceed directly to attempt to obtain this Great Root. Thus begins an extraordinary set of tales that leads from the Imperial Palace to brothels to an enchanted destroyed city.
Along the way we meet quite a cast of characters: Ma the Grub, Henpecked Ho, the gross (in multiple ways) Ancestress, the greedy Duke of Ch'in, Doctor Death, and the jade-loving Lotus Cloud. Each is unique, though often specifically drawn as semi-caricatures; each adds their bit to this tapestry that includes the secret of immortality, the link between Heaven and Earth, invisible monsters, maze-filled dungeons that guard incredible treasure, where one's heart should be carefully hidden away.
Some of the tales herein are real Chinese legends, some are products of Hughart's own fertile imagination, but all are told with a large dollop of humor sketched in broad strokes and a not-so-obvious underlying morality that is quite relevant to every reader. The style may bother some people, as it is written to deliberately evoke that sense of 'Chinese' that many Americans have as a background image of that land and people, but I felt it was an excellent method of evoking that sense of 'different' and 'fairy' at the same time. A few of the tales fell a little flat with me, and at times I thought that Hughart went a little too 'over-the-top' with his outrageous situations and characters, but the overall level of writing kept me nicely adsorbed and grinning quite a bit.
There is an overlying mystery, a puzzle to be solved, that connects all these tales, and leads to the final resolution of the story. In the course of working our way through these stories, there seems to be a large amount of coincidence in play, a definite sense of deux-ex-machina to each tale's resolution, but the end of the book proves that all these 'coincidences' are really part of a carefully thought-out overall plot design.
I figured out the puzzle quite a bit before the end, but that did not lessen the final emotional impact of the ending, which presents a gorgeous image, an image which is eminently fitting with the rest of the book, and made me wish for a few more tales from this land of not-quite-real ancient China.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)