Sunday, January 25, 2004

I bow to the four corners of the world.

Wil Duquette is reading aloud to his kid one of my very favorite books, The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, which was really my first encounter with multi-volume epic fantasy. (I read Tolkien two years later.) Now I want to read that series again….lucky for me I own it in a one-volume omnibus, although I'd like to get the individual hardcovers with the original cover art someday.

And speaking of Wil, I followed up one of his recommendations from a month or so ago and read Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. This book is just wonderful; it's one of those beautifully-crafted fantasies where a poor villager's home faces a terrible threat unless he can find the magical talisman that will banish the evil. In this case, the villager is Number Ten Ox, the threat to his village is a strange "wasting" disease that strikes only the children, and the magical talisman is the Great Root of Power (a particularly powerful form of ginseng). Ox, it goes without saying, can't do it all alone, so he enlists the aid of a sage named Li Kao, who has "a slight flaw in his character" (his own words) but who also knows, well, nearly everything.

The book is episodic in structure: Ox and Li Kao go from one adventure to the next as they try to figure out how to get the Great Root, and they must first execute certain tasks in a certain order to do so. But the tasks aren't merely sequential in terms of revealing the mere location of the Root or how to get it; Ox and Li Kao's quest is also (or moreso) a quest for the wisdom they will need to achieve it. So each "episode" in the story ends up tying back, in the end, to the basis of the whole problem in the first place, and like any good fantasy a small problem facing a tiny village ends up involving Goddesses and the Ruler of All China and grievances a thousand years in the offing. There is a lot of mythology here (though I have no idea how much of it springs from actual Chinese mythology, knowing as I do very little about it); there are moments of great beauty, great sadness, and some absolutely wonderful humor, like this:

"....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."

And the book's climax hinges on one of those wonderful revelations that make you laugh with delight as you realize how everything that has gone before leads to precisely that conclusion, while at the same time making you curse yourself for not seeing it coming a mile away. I loved this book, and while I'm told that the subsequent two books by Hughart featuring these characters aren't quite as good, I look forward to tracking them down. And as for the publishers whose lunacy led Hughart to stop writing these books altogether, may their villages be afflicted by locusts and tax collectors.

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