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on 14 October 2003
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)
6 people found this helpful
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on 2 March 2001
"Bridge of birds" is a fantasy fiction that is told in the style of a chinese fable. The magic and monsters have a sinister quality like those of greek myths; designed to entertain children and unsettle adults. The plot is itself like a chinese puzzle; the twists and turns are simple and yet effectively surprising. Also thrown into the mix is a gentle wit, that all-in-all goes to make this truly one of the best little stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. This book should be deemed to be a modern classic, it is easily equal to the likes of "Gulliver's travels". Its a real gem.
7 people found this helpful
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on 10 December 1998
The 'slight flaw' in 100-year-old Master Li's character is as large as the ancient China in which this fantastical magical mythical mystery story is played out. Barry Hughart supplies dense plotting, fully formed characters, fabulous adventures, some adult spice, and stirs it all in an exotic pot composed of the ground mythology of an ancient China that never was. The surprising and uplifting denoument is as transcendent as any in literature. People's lives have been changed by reading this book...
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on 13 September 2014
A charming, delightful story set in an ancient China that never was, but should have been. A madcap fairytale in which Master Li, a venerable sage with a slight flaw in his character, and his strong young assistant Number Ten Ox go to extraordinary lengths to obtain the ginseng that will cure the children of Ox's village. The villains are both sinister and absurd, the heroes are clever, sneaky, and prone to very bizarre con tricks, and the whole story rollicks along at a fine pace.
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on 4 September 2008
I won't take you through the plot, others before me have done a much better job than I could do. What I want to do is give you feeling of this book.

If you're looking to use this story as a reference to Chinese mythos, you may well be wasting your time; there are elements of the mythology here but they've been used as a basis rather than adhered to stringently. They give the story its reason to be though.

This is ostensibly a love story, written with a huge sense of humour and tongue in cheek at the amount of violence the characters use to achieve their ends. Its a fantasy story and needs to be taken as such; read it without a sense of humour and you will be disappointed. There's a quiet joy involved in reading this book. It's total escapism from cover to cover, and one of those stories that you'll come back to when you're feeling low or want to run away from reality for a while.

I've yet to read the sequels as I didn't know they existed till I came here to replaced my much-loved but lost copy of this book. I'm over-joyed that there are two more Master Li books for me to find, and gutted to know that the author felt he'd taken the characters as far as he could with this trilogy. I'm sure he ended on a high though.
One person found this helpful
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on 30 November 1998
I have now read all three in this series and would love a fourth. Number 10 Ox is an innocent guided through nightmare senarios by the crafty sage(with a slight flaw in his character) Li Kao. Bridge of Birds throws every horror at the pair as they try to save the children of the village. As good as Indiana Jones, and with more history.
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on 25 May 2001
I read this ten years ago, loved it, but lost the book soon afterwards...got it recently from Amazon and have re-read it several times since! Quirky and surreal in places, other-worldly as well, but charming and a real gem of a story.
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on 9 September 2004
I tried several times without success to get past the first page. Once I eventually did I couldn't put it down and spent my week's holiday at the seaside reading this incredible and unexpected book. I laughed non-stop, but was also tense and curious, because the plot is so brilliant and the twists and turns so logical yet you just don't see them coming. Hughart really blends humour and fantasy with a clever thriller like no one else.
3 people found this helpful
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on 29 April 2011
I really enjoyed this story, as I did the other book in this series that I have read. I look forward to buying and reading the third. Sadly, although the author originally intended 7 in the series the other 4 were never written due to publishing problems.
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on 30 August 2000
One of my favourite ever stories. A fabulous (in all senses) story, stuffed with exotic period detail, uniquely notable characters and a pacy plot. All this wrapped in a classic cyclical story style. Sharp humour, quirky, original and if you are about to read it for the first time, I envy you...
2 people found this helpful
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