Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Hughart, Barry

(1934-2019) US writer whose popular Master Li series of Oriental Fantasies effectively taps what had become a neglected vein of Chinoiserie. The keynote is the subtitle of his debut book Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (1984), a World Fantasy Award winner in 1985; its sequels are The Story of the Stone: A Master Li Novel (1988) and Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991). BH's old China is more sentimentally painted and less ornate in its Diction than Ernest Bramah's, and draws more on authentic source texts, but remains recognizably the same seriocomic Land of Fable. The ancient Trickster sage Master Li and his narrator-sidekick Number Ten Ox function as an Occult-Detective team distantly reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Typically, Li's investigations escalate from small beginnings to deal with cosmic Wrongness, as with the Goddess in Bridge of Birds who, aeons before, was deprived by trickery of her entrée to Heaven and condemned to Earthly Bondage; it is also typical that susceptible Ox falls in Love with her and is near-blinded when her divinity finally remanifests (> Face of Glory). This crowded plot also features Picaresque swindles, Prophecy, Riddles hidden in children's Games and oral traditions, guardian Monsters, Ghosts, Labyrinths, outrageous Anachronism (e.g., the Bamboo Dragonfly, a gunpowder-driven Technofantasy helicopter), Immortality, Shapeshifting and Portents which, like the running jokes, accumulate force by Three-fold repetition. There is real charm in the final panorama of all China gazing in wonder as its Birds construct the goddess's eponymous bridge to Heaven.

The sequels are also crowded and entertaining, with several fine set-piece scenes like the shared Hallucination of a visit to the neo-Confucian Hell in The Story of the Stone; but their plots are less satisfyingly coherent, and many of the first book's motifs are recycled with decreasing effect. The genre would be poorer without the follow-ups, but Bridge of Birds remains the author's outstanding novel. [DRL]

Barry Hughart


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.