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am 19. September 2000
"Bridge of Birds" is the most effective, most moving fantasy novel I have read since John Crowley's "Engine Summer." Set in (to use the publisher's blurb) "an ancient China that never was," this is at least on the surface the tale of Number Ten Ox, a young man from a rural village who sets out with Master Li, a scholar and sage with "a slight flaw in his character," on a quest for the "great root of power," the only medicine of sufficient potency to cure the village children of a case of ku poisoning. As the story unfolds and these two characters experience adventures enough to fill many novels (one can imagine Tor or some other publisher spinning out these yarns by the tens a la Conan if they got a hold of the publishing rights), their quest begins to intertwine with another one, relating to an ancient wrong done to a goddess.
More details would be superfluous, for there is simply no substitute for reading this book. The culture and characters described here are fully realized (writers of doorstop-sized fantasy novels, such as Robert Jordan, could take object lessons from Hughart in how to tell a large story succinctly), and the overall atmosphere that this novel achieves is that of the finest kind of fable, although I would not necessarily recommend it for young children. Hughart spices his narrative throughout with a liberal dose of humor; I found myself laughing aloud many times as I read along. If there is a flaw to be found here, I failed to see it. This is as good as fantasy gets--one of the few novels that merits the adjective "magical."