Christmas Product Placement #6: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart

Well, it’s time to wrap up the Christmas Product Placement Week. Poor Aunt Billie-Joe Bob is sprawled out under the tree, wrapping paper and CDs and DVDs scattered all over her body. But I would be remiss if, in all the things I suggested, I don’t mention a book. So here. Plop this hefty read on her stomach, because it’s a thick one. But good. Oh so good. I’m talking about the book The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. But be warned–if you want to read this book, you’ll have to do a bit of searching because it’s hard to find.

BOBBack in 80s, a guy named Barry Hughart wrote a book called Bridge of Birds. One could call it “A tale of China that never was”. It was a story about a fun loving boozer called Master Li who’s called to investigate a mysterious illness that’s taken place in a village. He is joined by an idiot, but powerful strong oaf who goes by the moniker Number Ten Ox. The tale takes them over an imaginary China where they have a run-in with ghosts, large amounts of ginseng, corrupt politicians and their ugly-but-strangely-compelling mistresses, and gods torn apart from each other. The best way to explain this books is 4 parts fairy tale, 3 parts mystery, 1 part treasure hunt, 1 part comedy, 1 part tragedy, with bits of children games, ghost story, horticulture, bawdy humor, poetic justice and a gigantic killer invisible hand thrown in measure.

I came across this book in the late ’80s when I first ventured to the North Side of Chicago (don’t tell my mom–I didn’t tell her we had a half-day in high school) and got it at a fantasy bookstore. I fell in love with the book, then promptly lost it (I know I gave it to someone, but for the life of me, no one will ‘fess up). Fast forward several years later, a couple of years after I got married. One day, I was surfing the web when I found an old bookstore that used to be in Evanston I used to frequent being sold to another business. Curious, I looked through their catalog and up popped Bridge of Birds, along with two other books Hughart wrote with the same two main characters: The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. The three books were collected in an omnibus called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Six months later, I managed to add this book to my collection, and I would call it my most favorite book ever.

I can’t do justice with this review. The books are hilarious and touching. Master Li is strange, bizarre, naughty, but he is also smart and wise for a dirty old man. Number Ten Ox is sweet in his stupidity, and you can’t help but root for him as he undergoes various and progressively-harder-to-pull-off tasks. The ending to the Bridge of Birds made me cry…and I believe at the halfway point of the omnibus, I felt miserable because I felt I was reading it too fast and almost done with it. I wanted to read every sentence, every word, because Hughart writes so beautifully, so poetically , it’s like listening to your Chinese grandmother telling a story, even if you’re not Chinese. His other two books in the omnibus are good too. In The Story of the Stone, Master Li & 10 Ox continue their adventures of solving cases by helping a prince trace the mayhem of his ancestor and the power of a mysterious stone. And in Eight Skilled Gentlemen, a bunch of elite eunuchs are being murdered for possession of odd, birdcage like contraptions, and it’s up to Master Li & 10 Ox to find out why before the world blows up…or something. Though it was funny, this is the weirdest story of the three.

Sadly, Hughart never wrote any more books, even though he won a 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel that was shared with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (ah, and there’s another book that I need to get for keeps. That was an awesome book). Although his three books were wonderful, there were problems he had with his publishers that caused him to walk away from writing altogether. It’s such a blasted shame, because I would have loved to see more adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. The book is very hard to find in an actual bookstore, which means you’ll have to track it down online. I got mine at, but it looks like they don’t carry it anymore.

But no matter what you do, track down this book somehow. Order it from the library, find it in one of the third-market sellers at Amazon. Do a search on Google. Find this book. Then read it. And let me know if you do. You will be ready to embark on a wild, crazy, fun ride. For all of you reading it for the first time, I envy you. I really do.