January 17, 2004

The Story of the Stone, by Barry Hughart

This is the first sequel to Bridge of Birds, Hughart's delightful tale of Number Ten Ox the peasant and Master Li Kao, the sage with a slight flaw in his character. This book takes place a few years after its predecessor; one gathers that Ox has been living with Li Kao in Peking and that they've had a number of adventures in the meantime.

In this book, Master Li and Number Ten Ox are summoned to a distant valley which centuries ago was the home of the fiendish and sadistic Laughing Prince. A monk has been found dead, apparently of fright, strange sights have been seen, and the local abbot is afraid that the Laughing Prince and his followers have returned.

Like its predecessor, The Story of the Stone is a skillful mixture of Chinese life, legend, and myth, well-leavened with humor. I've never thought it quite as good as its predecessor, and on this reading I set out to find out why. It turns out that there are three related reasons.

The first reason is a difference in structure. Bridge of Birds is essentially episodic in nature, though the episodes are joined by an over-arching narrative. Moreover, all of the episodes share a single narrative and comic structure. The Story of the Stone is much less episodic, and the storyline is rather more complex.

The difference in structure has two effects, my second and third reasons. The first effect is that while there's much to laugh at in The Story of the Stone, the comedy is incidental rather than essential--it could easily have been left out without changing the story significantly. The second effect is that the book is much less fun to read aloud--which is how I first tried to read it. (Bridge of Birds reads aloud marvelously.)

And that's what left the bad taste in my mouth--I was expecting a delightful, joyous read-aloud, and I didn't get one.

This time around I resolved to just let the book do its thing, without comparing it to its predecessor, and I've decided that it's really much better than I'd given it credit for--that it's a good, well-crafted tale. It still isn't the book Bridge of Birds is; but then, few are.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 17, 2004 08:23 PM

Ron said:

Bridge of Birds reads aloud marvelously.

What I wouldn't give for, say, an audiobook version narrated by B.D. Wong. It 's one of my five favorite fantasy novels, easily.

Will Duquette said:

So what are the others?

Ron said:

Well, he said after a four-day interregnum caused by moving all his belongings...

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gormenghast trilogy, Mervyn Peake
Last Call, Tim Powers
The Planet Buyer, Cordwainer Smith (probably more SF than fantasy, but what the heck)