I read Bridge of Birds as a teen and remember really enjoying it, though I had no real recollection of the story. For some reason or another I was reminded of this book recently and decided to give it a reread. So I picked it up on Amazon and wedged it into my reading queue, and now it’s been read again.
Allow me, this time, to present you with a rating, and then I’ll work backwards. Good read – 3.5/5.
Set in a fantasy version of ancient China, Bridge of Birds reads something like a novel-length fairy tale. It incorporates reworked elements of Chinese mythology as well as threads of the author’s own crafting. If, like me, you’re not super familiar with Chinese culture and folklore, you may be hard-pressed to differentiate the two.
Like many fairy tales, Bridge of Birds wields a sort of grim humor. Sometimes it borders on silliness, and other times it drifts into downright problematic (in my research for this post I came across one review I won’t link that noted the failure of BoB to pass the Bechdel Test. Lordy!). It also includes healthy portions of action, mystery, romance, and tragedy.
There were some slow points, especially earlier on in the story. These were often “world-building” moments, where Hughart’s narrator protagonist was relating some tall tale or historical event of some small relevance to the story. Fortunately, Bridge of Birds delivers a well-balanced experience. There were times when I felt the story was almost too slow or too silly, but then things would get serious or all hell would break loose and erupt into a fight or chase scene.
That balance may be the tale’s greatest asset. Much of the story is lighthearted adventure starring Master Li Kao (who would be something of a high-level sage/thief hybrid in a game) and the hulking Number Ten Ox – the brains and brawn of the outfit respectively. But every so often – BAM – the story throws you for a loop and delivers the feelz. Importantly, the times this happened didn’t feel contrived to me. They were beautiful, in a way.
The best example is perhaps the character of Miser Shen, who early on in the story is presented as just that – a greedy, avaricious man concerned only with his wealth. Later on, however, we learn that he was driven mad by the loss of his daughter and had resolved to accumulate enough money to pay the wise Old Man of the Mountain for the secret of bringing her back to life.
Shen’s prayer to his deceased child, which is actually based upon the translation of a real historical text, will probably stay with me for quite a while.
“Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, ‘Who is it?’ When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, ‘Ching!’ and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you[…]”
Another kudo I give the book is how the story really comes together in the end. As Master Li and Number Ten Ox work to solve their mystery, the pace picks up and more and more seemingly unrelated characters and events coalesce to form an even bigger picture.
In some ways Bridge of Birds hearkens back to earlier days of SFF, when genres were a lot more fluid. This isn’t the sort of story I’ve often come across, and it presented me with a refreshing change of pace.
It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you find the premise or the genre uninteresting, I doubt you’ll change your mind. Likewise if you have no interest in Asian folklore or mythology, you may want to give it a pass. But if your interest has been piqued, I recommend you check it out!