There are books that you love immediately. Then there are books that have to grow on you first but once you like them, they’ll never let you go. This clearly falls into the latter category. I started out not liking it particularly, only to have it charm the pants off me by the end.
Published by: Del Rey, 1984
Paperback: 288 pages
Series: The Chronicles of Master Li
and Number Ten Ox #1
My rating: 8/10
First Sentence: I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.
When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure. The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures – and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.
My knowledge of Chinese mythology is entirely based on the two-part movie adaptation of Journey to the West (which is hilarious and wonderful and you should watch). Had I not had this very rudimentary basis of how these traditional, classic tales are told, I would have been terribly lost in this book. It is a combination of whimsical – almost silly – and serious, there is more plot than in many 800-page epic fantasies, the characters are strangely alive, and I found myself enjoying it more and more the longer I read.
We are first introduced to Number Ten Ox and his small village, Ku Fu. Within a few pages, all children between the ages of 8 to 13 are struck with a mysterious sickness that leaves them as in a coma. Number Ten Ox sets out to find a wise man who can help them cure the sickness and figure out how a plague can learn how to count. Master Li, who politely states that “there is a slight flaw in his character” joins Ox and they set out on an adventure. It reads very episodically at first and I missed a lot of depth and descriptions. The characters are archetypical but gain more layers throughout the novel.
This is one of those books that you have to continue to enjoy. The more I read, the more I got sucked in, and the funnier it was. Master Li and Ox meet a lot of characters – who also begin fairly flat. Again, stick to it because there are twists and suprises waiting along the way. As they make their way through labyrinths and enchanted cities, meet the most expensive woman in the entire world and lift ancient curses, I grew to care for the characters. At the end, I was surprised by how much.
The plot is fast-paced and very tongue-in-cheek. Barry Hughart doesn’t only put a spin on ancient Chinese legends and myths, he even mentions “that Russian fellow” Koschei the Deathless. I am sure I’ve missed more than half the references to mythological beings but even with my very limited knowledge in that area, I dare say even without any knowledge, this book is still simply fun. There are moments of wonder, there is action that kept me at the edge of my seat, and magic of some kind or another waits in every new place the protagonists visit.
“The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science,” he observed mildly. “I’m probably imagining complications that don’t exist. Come on, Ox, let’s go out and get killed.”
Because of the light-hearted style and the quick-moving plot, I did feel a little distanced from the story, but it was so refreshing reading a fantasy that is so different from most of the genre. I will continue the trilogy surrounding Master Li and Number Ten Ox without a doubt (I secretly hope that they will meet the Monkey King on their travels) and I can recommend this book wholeheartedly. Don’t expect Tolkienesque descriptions of landscape or George R.R. Martinesque depth of character. Instead, sit down with a nice cup of tea, enter the world of ancient China that never was, and you won’t stop grinning until it’s over.
THE GOOD: A funny, quick, fresh fantasy adventure featuring gods, a wise man with a silght flaw in his character, treasure coves, and flying machines.
THE BAD: It’s not your avarage epic fantasy. Epic in scope, certainly, but journeys are handled within one sentence, and you never get that deep knowledge of the characters that we are used to from modern fantasies.
THE VERDICT: If you’re tired of reading doorstopper novels, if you’re interested in exploring new settings in fantasy, or if you like Journey to the West, this is the book for you. It will make you laugh, it will make you roll your eyes, and it will keep you guessing at its riddles-within-riddles until the very end.
RATING: 8/10 Excellent
The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox:
- Bridge of Birds
- The Story of the Stone
- Eight Skilled Gentlemen