Thursday, January 24, 2013

Murder, Zombies, and Courtesans in Ancient China

The Story of the Stone
The Story of the Stone is the second book in Barry Hughart's The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox trilogy.  I read and loved the first book, Bridge of Birds (thanks again to Heather for pushing me to finally read this one a couple of years ago!), but had a lot of trouble finding the next two books in the series.  Luckily, the whole trilogy is available for $9.99 on Kindle, so I was able to get The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen on e-book for my trip to India.  Hughart originally intended to write a series of seven books, but he only ever published three of them, citing differences with his publisher.  It's unfortunate for readers, as these books really are gems, but at least there are three out there for us to read!

The Story of the Stone picks up some time after Bridge of Birds ends, in "an ancient China that never was."  Master Li, a brilliant and ancient sage with "a slight flaw in his character," and Number Ten Ox, his extraordinarily strong peasant assistant are called to investigate the murder of a monk in the Valley of Sorrows, where a psychotic ruler from centuries before, the Laughing Prince, is believed to have come back from the dead to cause destruction once more.  Master Li and Ox set off to solve the mystery, picking up along the way a beautiful courtesan with no memory of most of her life and a glorious sound master who causes mayhem wherever he goes and who has quite an effect on every male he ever encounters.

What follow is another very fun and entertaining romp through ancient China - or at least Hughart's version of it.  There are numerous allusions to major and minor deities, Confucius,and the "neo-Confucians" that rule China in Master Li's day, myths and folk tales, and a lot about the class structure.

Hughart's books are hard to classify.  They are generally put in the fantasy section of bookstores and libraries because of the magic and mythology.  But Master Li and Ox always solve mysteries, too, so they could easily go into the mystery section.  And humor is a major component of these books, as well as history.  In many ways, I think that the classification system bookstores use hurts authors like Hughart that don't really fit into any one category but could appeal to a very diverse group of readers.  Many people who read mysteries would really enjoy these books, but probably will never encounter it if they don't venture into the fantasy aisle once in a while, and that's quite sad because they're missing out on a lot of fun.

The plot is quite complicated and I won't even attempt to explain it here, except to say that, much like Bridge of Birds, it starts out seeming simple, then becomes quite convoluted in a manner that I can only compare to Terry Pratchett (though that's not really accurate), and then it all gets solved at the end in a truly lovely and magnificent way that I'm still not sure I fully understand.  But I liked it, anyway :-)

What really makes these books stand out to me is their sense of fun.  Historical fiction can often be bogged down by details about wars and disease and pillaging, and fantasy fiction can get bogged down in epic journeys, defeating evil, and overcoming other obstacles.  The Story of the Stone manages to be both historical and fantastical without losing its sense of humor, making the characters come gloriously to life and making clear that people in the ancient world could be ironic and witty, too.  This book also has a bisexual character, and he's so fun and just accepted so wonderfully by his friends (even as he causes complete chaos wherever he goes).  This aspect of the book reminded me a lot of my discussion with Ana on Farthing, in which Ana pointed out that just because people who accepted homosexuality were rare in the past, that doesn't mean they didn't exist, and literature should acknowledge that.   And I think Hughart does that here, to fine effect.

The mythology and folk tales and poetry and all the rest that Hughart weaves into his story are excellent, too - there are so many references to things that I wanted to Wikipedia to determine if they were real or made up, and I couldn't tell where the facts ended and Hughart's imagination began.  I am impressed that he could fit his own story into history so skillfully.

While I didn't love The Story of the Stone as much as Bridge of Birds, I did enjoy it immensely and am so happy that I have the third book to read, too.  It's unfortunate that we'll never get to see the full story arc of Master Li and Number Ten Ox that Hughart envisioned, but we're so lucky to have access to the three stories he did write and publish, and I'm quite grateful for those.


  1. This sounds sort of fabulous, and I never would've heard of it (I'm willing to bet) if you hadn't posted about it. Thanks a bunch! :D

  2. Yay! I am so glad that you found the other books, and since you mentioned that Amazon had them for 9.99, I went ahead and bought them as well! Hughart is a really wonderful author, and while I am sad that the rest of his series isn't up for the offering, his magical touches and blend of fantasy and history are some of the strongest that I have seen. I can't wait to read these now, and I think I am going to start over and read Bridge of Birds first! Excellent review today, Aarti!!

  3. One of the reasons why I love reading book blogs are the gems such as this book which I would never have heard of otherwise. This sounds just like something I would enjoy so I'm going to try and hunt down the first volume!

  4. Catchy title for you post.! I just had to come take a look-see.

  5. I absolutely adore books that make me go to Wikipedia to check if stuff is made up or true! I'd be interested in the folk tales in this series, I know so little about China.

  6. What an intersting mix of genres :)

  7. Oooooh. I am so glad you read this first. :) I loved Bridge of Birds as you might remember, but I was so nervous to read the second one. I shall have to see if I can find it in some version other than Kindle (I have a Kobo). Thanks for the review! I'm looking forward to this now.

  8. I have heard so many great things about Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox stories. I once owned a really nice collectible copy of them but sold it in a purge and have regretted it ever since. I need to track these down in their individual novels and give them a try.

  9. Historical fiction can be fun? Consider me sold - thanks for letting me in on this series.


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