The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
By Barry Hughart
Format: Hardcover, 645 pages
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Cover Art: Jon Foster
Release Date: November 2008
I had never heard of this book until last fall when people were talking about it because of the upcoming release from Subterranean. I did a little research and it seems he’s only written three books. The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Tex Ox is an omnibus of those three books, Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentleman, and set in an ancient magical China that never was. The books are written in first person point of view of Number Ten Ox, a humble assistant to Master Li. Master Li is a wise man that also happens to have a flaw in his character and is a bit of a drunk, murderer, and thief. Together they have bumbling adventures, fight injustice, and battle and match wits with evil forces.
Being three books in one Chronicles took me almost a week and a half to read. Part of that was due to the highly detailed and rich prose. Hughart describes history, scenery, and characters in flamboyant detail, often in a meandering path. Not that I’m complaining. The book was a joy to read and vividly imagined, though the author does sometimes get a little carried away.
Other than an oft overly verbose prose, the only real drawback is that I thought Master Li was sometimes a little too clever in figuring out the mystery. Number Ten Ox is a peasant and presents himself as the dim, if pure, assistant to the wisest man in China. So Master Li’s unraveling of the plot is essentially a forgone conclusion. Readers shouldn’t expect a simple, straightforward plot because that would be unfair to the story.
I was quite enchanted by how realistic the stories felt. The level of detail in Chinese culture, history, and myth is extremely high. Hughart weaves ancient folk tales, legends, and history into his version of a fantastical China. The stories are simultaneously parody, drama, love, adventure, comedy, and fantasy all in one. The humor is often laugh-out-loud hilarious as evidenced by the quote at the top of this blog.
Subterranean was the publisher for this omnibus so the book is a limited edition and last I checked all available copies were sold out. I don’t believe it’s even listed on Amazon anymore. It’s still possible to get an omnibus that was published in 1998 as well as the original, individual books. Please look for them because you won’t regret it. Strongly recommended.