Top critical review
Fun Chinese Fantasy Picaresque Runs Out of Steam
on 13 May 2018
I picked this up based on some kind of list along the lines of "Great Non-European Fantasy Books" and its winning the 1985 World Fantasy Award. It's the first in a trilogy featuring a pair of unlikely heroes: village bumpkin with a heart of gold Number Ten Ox, and wizened wine-soaked genius investigator Master Li. When the children of Ox's village all fall into an unexplained coma, he is sent to Peking to find someone to help, and Master Li is all he can afford. And thus, the duo are joined in a quest for a legendary ginseng root that might cure the children.
What follows is a picaresque tale of adventure, as they meet and defeat a whole slew of colorful characters and become entangled in something much larger than the mere fate of children. Ghosts and monsters abound, as do mounds of treasure, labyrinths, treacherous monks, and more. I suspect that many of the elements and legends that are assembled to make the story are drawn from real Chinese folklore, and readers with a grounding in Chinese history and culture might find it all a little richer than I did.
After a certain point, the heroic to-ing and fro-ing started to lose its considerable charm. Still, on the whole, it's a pretty fun and different take on a fantasy adventure story, and there are two sequels for those that like it. There are a ton of Chinese films of the same fantasy/adventure ilk, and I'll probably stick to those in the future.