Bridge of Birds is a triumph, a huge, picaresque magical journey through a China that ‘never was’, but in some ways, will always be. I found this book initially because I had read Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung books, and wished there were more of them. Bridge of Birds is not much like Kai Lung, really, other than the Chinese fantasy setting–the characters don’t speak formally, which is where much of the humor in Kai Lung comes in, and the story-within-a-story structure is absent–but the story is vastly enjoyable in its own right.
One of Hugharts’s triumphs is, paradoxically enough, making his characters universal: his magical China contains vulgar peasants, beautiful maidens, supernaturally gifted con men, matriarchs both good and evil, gods and goddesses who interfere in the mortal realm, misers with hearts of gold, and tyrants with no hearts at all. In other words, it’s like the fantastic world of any traditional culture from Europe to Japan. Also, this book has some of the most affecting and simply human passages I have ever read–for example, Miser Shen’s lament for his daughter.
Even given the large cast of characters, Li Kao and his protege, Number Ten Ox, carry the story as easily as Ox carries the old sage on his shoulders. They are wonderful characters and fully deserve the ultimate fate that the author had planned for them: to be accepted into the heavenly realm to live forever as minor deities.
For me, the other two books in this series, though still enjoyable, are a bit of a letdown. (spoiler alert) For one thing, they use the same basic plot outline as Bridge of Birds, though with varied characters and a different Chinese ritual as background. Also, the occasional bawdiness of the first book spins out of control, for my taste, particularly in The Story of the Stone.
But Bridge of Birds is a masterpiece–among the best modern fantasy books I’ve ever read and re-read.