fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart fantasy book reviewsBridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Welcome to a “story of ancient China that never was”. Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (1985) is a real romp of frenetic pace and fairy-tale style mingled with the mythology and legends of ancient China. It’s as bonkers and as brilliant as they come.

The story centres on a simple but warm-hearted peasant boy, nicknamed Number 10 Ox for his great strength and the order of his birth. Upon learning that all of the children in his village have been struck down by a terrible disease he sets out to Peking seeking a wise man. Down a grimy back street he stumbles upon the only wise-man he can afford, a cantankerous old trickster, with “a slight flaw in his characternamed Li Kao. Together they set off to find the “root of power that will save the children. What ensues is a quest that takes the pair across the breadth of China, from raucous towns and vast fortresses to deserts and musical caverns. They scheme and fight and get into mischief, helped along by Li Kao’s unique style of working. What starts as a simple journey proves deceptive as the mission leads them to uncover dark secrets that will have consequences for both men and gods.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFirst things first, Hughart’s cast of characters is golden. They are a bunch so wild and diverse you will wonder that you have never heard of them before. Li Kao is the stand-out hero with his filthy mouth, filthy manners and hair-brained schemes. You can be assured of his brilliance at the start of the quest when he amasses a fortune, convincing the master of the town to buy a goat that can excrete gold — it is, of course, a perfectly ordinary goat. But while Li Kao shines throughout the supporting characters are by no means dull and from Fat Fu and One-Eyed Wong, to Cut Off Their Balls Wang, they are perfectly crafted.

In the best tradition of real fairy tales Hugart does not shy away from the macabre, as we learn upon meeting Henpecked Ho who, tired of his formidable wife, cheerfully hacks her to pieces with an axe (did I mention this isn’t a children’s book?). Next up is Lotus Blossom, a plain-faced girl with the ability to entrance every man she meets. The poor fools merrily bankrupt themselves showering her with pearls and jade — the only gifts she will accept. Joining them are tortured ghosts and dastardly villains, beautiful goddesses, bizarre monsters and classic fools. In short, it’s a panoply of mayhem, madness and brilliance.

But what really elevates Bridge of Birds to the unforgettable category is a style of writing so delightfully random and witty I defy you not to laugh out loud or at least emit a hearty chuckle. There are running gags aplenty but Hughart also treats us to one off tit-bits of detail that brought a smile to my face:

Master Li turned bright red while he scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges with which he had won the All-China Freestyle Blasphemy Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.

Even in dark and violent moments Bridge of Birds retains its warm heart:

“Ho, Ox and I are wrapped in so many chains we can’t move, you are attached to the wall by a leg chain, this dungeon is solid rock, the torture chamber is crammed with soldiers, we are eleven stories beneath the earth and each landing is guarded by more soldiers. The palace is swarming with the army of the Ancestress, the army of the Duke of Ch’in is camped outside the walls, and Ox and I must escape from here immediately, Unless you look forward to being hung, drawn and quartered, I suggest that you accompany us.”

“I think that’s a splendid idea,” said Henpecked Ho.

True, this is not the sort of book to pick up if you are after something serious with relatable characters. The word ‘tale’ is more suited that than the word ‘novel’ and it may strike some as too fantastical to be anything other than surface-level fun. To those cynics I would say give it a go. Beneath the cheerful banter and farcical events lies a beautiful tale that stays with you. Bridge of Birds is a rare thing, in which setting, character and plot all vie for attention. As a treat for all the senses, it comes highly recommended.

~Katie Burton

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart fantasy book reviewsThe best way to gauge a good book is to assess your reaction on reaching the end of it. If you breathe a deep sigh of contentment and/or wistfulness, then it was a good read. Such was my response on finishing Barry Hughart‘s Bridge of Birds.

Told in first-person narrative by simple peasant Yu Lu (better known as Number Ten Ox on account of his strength and sequential positioning among his siblings) we learn of the idyllic village of Ku-fu, famous for its landmark of the mysteriously named Dragon’s Pillow, a wall guarded by a single ghost.

Book 2

Life is pleasant in Ku-fu, at least until the day the silk harvest fails and the village’s children are stricken by a mysterious malady. Number Ten Ox is sent to find a wise man who can explain just what’s gone wrong. He returns to the village with Li Kao, who agrees to help despite warnings of a slight flaw in his character.

Li Kao decrees there’s only one cure for the prolonged illness: the ginseng plant, also known as the Great Root of Power. Together Li Kao and Number Ten Ox set out to find the incredibly rare medicine, and what follows is an adventure filled with maiden ghosts, magical birds, giant spiders, terrifying labyrinths, priceless treasure, underwater cities, and a host of other wonders.

Despite the story’s eclectic mix of ingredients, Bridge of Birds is most notable for its perfect puzzle-box of a plot, in which everything has a purpose and a placement (even if it’s not immediately apparent) and there are no coincidences whatsoever. Clues are littered throughout nearly every adventure and mishap our protagonists run into, and by the final pages you’ll realize this is one of those books that demands a re-read, just so you can fully appreciate how clever the author has been.

Li Kao uses cunning and trickery to achieve his ends, with Number Ten Ox providing droll yet earnest narration throughout, and even the most minor of characters come across as poignant and three-dimensional (though not always at first glance).

Book 3

In tone it reads like a blend of Angela Carter‘s The Bloody Chamber (specifically the bawdiness of “Puss in Boots”) and the books of Lloyd Alexander — his humour and wisdom in particular are rife throughout Bridge of Birds, though aimed at an older audience. Here’s an example:

Master Li turned bright red while he scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges with which he had won the all-China Freestyle Blasphemy Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.

As you can see, even as he pays homage to the mystery and beauty of Chinese folklore, Hughart does a lot to skewer some of its pretensions. But along with humour and excitement is beautiful poetic-prose that captures the landscape and culture of Ancient China, as well as an underlying message of what is truly important in this world: love, selflessness, hard work, and happy children.

There are twists and turns, laughs and scares, mysteries and revelations — what more could you wish for? There’s even a Dickensian reference that made me laugh out loud. All in all, Bridge of Birds is a great book.

~Rebecca Fisher

Published in 1985. When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox found master Li Kao. Together they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure, and together they discover adventure and legend, and the power of belief….


  • Katie Burton

    KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.