The Story of the Stone, Barry Hughart

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The Story of the Stone, Barry Hughart, ISBN 0-385-24636-6, 1988, Doubleday Foundation, $17.95, hb, 236 pp.

For the most part, I could care less whether a book has won an award in the field. The Hugos and Nebulas et al. seem to be popularity contests filled with backbiting, vote-buying, be-good-to-your-friends, I-recognize-the-name-so-I’ll-vote-for-that-one-even-though-I-haven’t-read-the-thing people who devalue the awards to the point of absurdity. That’s not to say that good books don’t win awards, or that all the books that do win are not worthwhile. But readers who read the blurb “Winner of the Hugo Award” without a grain of salt are being manipulated by the ceremonious posturers of supposed good taste.

Which makes me glad to tell you that I know of at least three award winners, all of which I’ve read recently, that are worth the extra verbiage: Replay by Ken Grimwood, Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, and Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, all winners of the World Fantasy Award for novel (Replay in 1986, the other two tied in 1984). Each of them is a fantasy quite unlike any other. Each, upon finishing, made me once again realize why I read fantastic literature–each touches a note inside oneself, filling one with zest for life, sadness or joy (in that order for the above books).

But can that same feeling be echoed in the inevitable sequel? As far as I know, Grimwood hasn’t written another book, and I haven’t gotten around to Lavondyss by Holdstock, but Hughart’s return to the China that never was, but should have been, is as wondrous as his first visit.

The Story of the Stone, as we discover in the prologue, is a much later adventure in the lives of Master Li, the sage with a “slight flaw in his character,” and Number Ten Ox, than the one detailed in Bridge of Birds, being as it is recorded by Ox in the sixth volume of Memoirs of Number Ten Ox, and Bridge of Birds chronicled their first meeting. (We are told that volumes two through six of the Memoirs were seized and burned by the Imperial Censors, a tragic happenstance if true.) In it, Master Li and Number Ten Ox are called upon by the Monks of the Valley of Sorrows to solve the mystery of a dead monk and the possible return of the Laughing Prince, who the peasants of the valley reported being seen. Not a good sign, considering that the Laughing Prince was to his peasants what Hitler was to Jews, and considering that he died over 800 years ago. But, he did say he would return…

Like a breath of fresh air in the stultifying fantasy field, Hughart takes as his sources the I Ching and the philosophy of China, rather than rehash the already overworked Celtic mythos that pervades most fantasy fiction. His style, approach, and–clearly–joy in writing these tales is evident in every page.

[Originally published in Mark V. Ziesing’s book catalogue in 1990.]

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