Most fantasy novels are variations on a theme. A young lad, seemingly doomed to a life of menial labor, discovers himself to be a great magician and/or warrior. He and his trusted companions go on a dangerous quest, at the end of which they face the powerful villain who they eventually defeat. The young hero gets the girl and claims his rightful place in the heroic pantheon. These stories are almost without exception set in a swords & sorcery universe loosely based on medieval Europe. Depending on the skill (and stamina) of the author they can be span as many as 13 books… or more. Think Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore and Raymond E. Feist.
Which is why the novels of Barry Hughart, set in “a China that never was”, are so refreshing. The series consists of just three books: Bridge of Birds (World Fantasy Award Winner), The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Each book has a Chinese legend at its heart. Each presents another chapter in the ongoing adventures of the drunken sage Li Kao and his faithful peasant companion Number Ten Ox. Together the two wander the mythical landscape of 7th century China solving mysteries and cracking jokes. In real life, Hughart spent several years in China and often incorporates actual Chinese myths into his stories. (He also improvises a good deal, but does it with both skill and irreverence). The pages fly by, and it would take a stoic reader not to grin at the antics of characters that owe as much to The Princess Bride as they do to Sherlock Holmes.
Peking is not beautiful, the way big cities like Ch’ang-an or Loyang or Hangchow can be beautiful, but Fire Horse Park is lovely, particularly after a rain, when the air is filled with the scents of pine and poplars and willows and locust trees. Master Li told me to head for the Eye of Tranquility, which is not my favorite place. It’s a small round lake set aside for old sinners who are grabbing for salvation at the last moment, and the conversation is not exactly inspiring. For some reason the codgers confuse sanctity with senility, and the dialogue consists of “goo-goo-goo,” accompanied by drooling and coy little glances toward Heaven. I think they’re trying to prove how harmless they are. They also follow the example of saintly Chiang Taikung and sit on the banks with fishing poles, carefully keeping the hooks three feet above the water. (Chiang Taikung loved to fish but refused to take life, and he said that if a fish wanted to leap up and commit suicide, it was the fish’s business.) Vendors do a brisk business in worms. The old rogues buy bucketfuls and cast more coy glances toward Heaven as they ostentatiously set them free. Frankly, the place gives me goose bumps.
Master Li had me circle the lake until he found what he wanted, and then he slid from my back and walked up beside an apprentice saint who strongly resembled a toad… I politely picked up and moved a couple of codgers so Master Li and I could sit flanking the toad.
“Goo-goo-goo?” said the codgers.
“Goo-goo-goo,” I replied.
– from The Story of the Stone
These books aren’t always easy to find, so go in expecting a bit of a scavenger hunt. I assure you, though, that it’s worth the effort. I recently finished the final in the series – Eight Skilled Gentlemen – and am happy to say that it lives up the high standard of absurdity set by its predecessors. When a flesh-eating zombie appears at an execution, Master Li and Number Ten Ox pay a visit to the Celestial Master in order to get to the bottom of things. The story they are told far surpasses zombies in its strangeness and our two heroes are off on another investigation. This time it will involve tea smugglers, malevolent mandarins, a pock-marked puppeteer, a lovely shamanka, and a psychotic epicurean… just to name a few in an exceedingly colorful cast of characters. All leading to a dramatic final confrontation with the legend of the eight skilled gentlemen… and with their own destinies. <cue cymbal crash!>
Books featuring Barry Hughart’s characters Master Li & Number Ten Ox (all published by Doubleday) include:
Bridge of Birds
The Story of The Stone
Eight Skilled Gentlemen
The Chronicles of Master Li & Number Ten Ox
Publisher: Subterranean Press (2008)
ISBN: 978 1 596062 00 9