Whoops. Hello there, blog!
I happened across the first Chronicle of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Bridge of Birds, several years back in a used bookstore in Arizona, but I wasn't able to get my hands on the others until I recently found an excellent deal for the Kindle omnibus - $9.99 for all three books. At less than $3.50 a novel, this is right in my preferred used-bookstore price range, so I sprang for it...
And an excellent choice it was. Those who've already read Hughart's work will be waiting for me to say something new already, to which all I can say is these books are new to me. Also, they're awesome, so if you (like me) haven't happened across the three, I highly recommend picking a few of them up.
Bridge of Birds, the first, is probably the best; the underlying story has a power and grandeur that is echoed but not matched in its sequels. Divine love, plagues, heartless noblemen and faithful ghosts, all wrapped in a world and style as raucously alive and farcical as Terry Pratchett's - it's frankly a masterpiece. This is about the second, though, and so: first, a very brief summary.
Number Ten Ox, our narrator, is an orphaned peasant from Hughart's "China that never was," a world built on legend, fairytale, and folk story. He encountered Master Li, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character, while searching for a sage who could cure a plague that had struck the children of his home village. After an adventure that started with a plague and ended with their trying to restore a betrayed goddess to the heavens, Ox went back to the capital with Master Li, to serve as muscle, handsome sidekick, and deadpan Dr. Watson to the brilliantly crooked sage.
The slight flaw in Master Li's character turns out to be his unfortunate tendency to cheat, lie, steal and murder whenever it seems like a good idea: there's no questioning his genius, but his methods are highly questionable.
In The Story of the Stone, Master Li is hired to investigate a ghost story complicated by a brilliant forgery: the librarian of a temple in a rural valley was murdered, with a scrap of a scroll written by an ancient calligraphy genius left in his hand. Or it seems to have been written by that genius; the script is perfect, but the content is that of an obvious forgery, since it breaks taboo to refer to the writer's father by his name. Master Li is far more interested in the forgery than in the ghost, that of an ancient, mad, cruel lord of the valley who supposedly committed the murder and then extinguished the life in vast swathes of the valley in his passing.
There certainly are strange dead areas in the beautifully landscaped path concealing the old lord's mine tailings, and Master Li's initial suspicion that perfectly normal crooks had used herbicide quickly turns out to be false. He and Number Ten Ox are drawn into a wild chase across China, involving a cheerfully debauched sound master and the whip-smart prostitute with whom his soul is entangled, a children's cult, a hallucinatory journey to Hell, and the very wall that holds chaos back from the universe.
There are a lot of thematic and plot similarities to Bridge of Birds - Mr. Hughart had initially planned a much longer series, but stopped writing due to issues with his publisher; in his introduction to the Kindle version, he says that "the Ox/Master Li format had become just that, a format." While the formula is uniquely Mr. Hughart's own, it's also noticeable by the second book. Sometimes the repetition works just fine, as in the centrality of the peasant children's club story that Ox can understand and interpret. Master Li and Ox clearly have a closer and more interdependent relationship in this book, with Ox helping to plot and to explain when his own experiences are useful. (Ox being definitely my favorite character, I appreciate the fact that his competence gets plenty of screen time here!)
Only a few things about this book bothered me; first, I felt that the love story wasn't sufficiently integrated into the mystery. It becomes highly relevant to the solution, but the elements integrated at various points in the explanation felt sort of tacked-on to me. Your mileage may well vary; I don't have any solid reasoning behind that objection, and there's no obvious rough spots I can point to, but the climax of Bridge of Birds grabbed me by the throat and gave me a good shake. The climax of The Story of the Stone put pieces in place without the same emotional impact, and reading both in quick succession I found myself a little disappointed.
The second thing that bothered me - and that still bothers me a little, because I haven't sorted out how I feel about it - is this book's treatment of homosexuality. One of the major characters, Moon Boy, spends literally every spare minute jumping into the bushes with someone, or something male, and he liberally wields his apparent superpowers of seduction to save the group on more than one occasion by dragging menacing males offscreen and "distracting" them. It's a woman, though, with whom he has a powerful emotional relationship (they have declared that their souls' fates are bound together, though there's no concern for sexual fidelity between them; they seem to be dearest friends with occasional sexual benefits.) Laid out in a paragraph, there are a million problematic things about Moon Boy, but in context, he's completely charming, good-natured, and his "superpower" of promiscuous gay sex is treated in the same amiable, tall-tale-telling manner as Li's superpowers of deduction and deception. On the other hand, Ox is irresistible to women, and his frequent liaisons (with married women, rich daughters, prostitutes, goddesses...) never define his character; Moon Boy ends up pursued by pitchfork-wielding mobs of people whose sons he's seduced, and solves the problem by seducing the guy leading the mob.
Overall, though, I appreciated the fact that there's an unambiguously "good guy" in this novel who's unambiguously gay, not a tragic figure, and not a complete walking stereotype. I have my misgivings: like, why is it necessary for a character who seems exclusively interested in men to have his "deathless bond of love" plot involve the one woman in his life? Are we supposed to assume that gayness is just about sexual debauchery and you need hetero emotional bonds to fulfill you? -- But Mr Hughart is no Orson Scott Card; I never got that squidgy authorial-intervention-to-deliver-a-Message feeling about Moon Boy. He might be a problematic character, but he's true to himself, he's not a villain, he's not tragic, and ludicrous though his sexual adventures sometimes become, they're never portrayed negatively.
Frankly, Moon Boy is camp. I like camp. My misgivings mostly stem from the fact that camp, done by somebody who Gets It, is awesome; but camp done by somebody who doesn't quite Get It turns into stereotype so damn fast you wouldn't believe. And, again, there's no sense of any wink-wink-nudge from the author, either the Getting It variety or the stereotypical sort... so the interpretation ends up left to the reader.
I did love the book, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone who's very sensitive about gay stereotypes. My misgiving was the equivalent of stale sprinkles on an awesome sundae. Somebody else may find that, instead, their awesome sundae is topped with anchovies. And a third person entirely may spot the Getting It wink-nudge that I didn't, in which case TELL ME PLEASE, so that I can get the stale sprinkle taste out of my mouth.