★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In a review of Hell is Empty, I noted a story told by Virgil White Buffalo, that ended with Walt Longmire asking, “‘And the moral of the story is?’
He raised an eyebrow, and it was as if the dent in his forehead was looking to dig deeper. ‘What is it with you white people and morals? Maybe it’s just a story about what happened.’”
And that is the essence of Master Li stories. They are old myths, storytelling at the knee of a master; the advanced version of What Happened that Time on the Mountain. Morals may be enforced, lessons learned, principles illustrated, but those are all secondary or even tertiary goals. First and foremost is the work of a story: to entertain.
“‘But how can I tell The Story of the Stone?’ I wailed. ‘In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place, even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.’
He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, ‘My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.’”
I may be in the minority, but I found The Story of the Stone even better than its predecessor, The Bridge of Birds (review). While Bridge was a rollicking adventure through the countryside, Stone is a mystery, one that needs to be solved the old, old, old fashioned way–by doing all of it yourself, including the autopsies (“My boy, we’re going to perform the most delightful autopsy in history“) and dream journeys through the Hells.
It begins in their home, with Number Ten Ox worrying about Master Li, “He never spoke to me about it, but he was old, old almost beyond belief, and I think he was afraid he’d drop dead before something interesting turned up.” The ‘something interesting’ turns out to be the abbot of a monastery in the Valley of Sorrows who brings a mystery: A monk has been murdered and a forgery of an an ancient stolen manuscript found in his hands. Even worse, the Laughing Prince, who has been dead for seven hundred and fifty years, seems to be responsible. Master Li is certain there is a rational explanation, so he and Ox set off for the Valley, just in time for the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts and a re-appearance of the horror. Solving the mystery of the murdered monk will mean learning about the Laughing Prince, meeting Prince Liu Pao, his current living descendent, discovering the Laughing tomb, visiting the capital city and the Captain of Prostitutes, and journeying to a barbarian kingdom find a talented song-master. That’s not all, mind you, but I don’t want to give the impression that solving the mystery means any less of a scope of adventure than Bridge, just that the adventures are more focused.
“One-Eyed Wong and his beloved wife, Fat Fu, have worked very hard to earn the reputation of running the worse wineshop in all of China. The notoriety gives them a clientele that is the envy of the empire”
Characters are delightful, from Master Li and his slight flaw, to the eternally-innocent Ox, to two new companions, Moon Boy and Grief of Dawn. Moon Boy has the ability to seduce anyone he meets–male or female–providing the opportunity for a nudge-nudge-wink-wink that adds some silly fun to the story. In the wrong hands, this kind of characterization could edge into simple caricature, but Hughbart does a perfect job of rounding out each character, respecting their eccentricities, and providing justifications for their traits.
“If it was a coincidental collapse of a tunnel and the release of old acids, as I suggested to the prince, it’s the kind of coincidence that deserves priests, prayers, and an elaborate theology.”
The writing is clever, with bits of humor scattered through, partly due to the word-play and partly moments of sheer fun (there’s a scheme to obtain tracings of sacred stones that’s laugh-out-loud). There’s awe at the mysteries of the universe. Surprisingly, there are some horror elements, which I should have expected since the Laughing Prince has been dead for seven hundred and fifty years.
“Li Kao, you wouldn’t do that, would you? he said pleadingly. “He’s only a boy.”
“And a delightful one, so I’m told,” Master Li said warmly.
“A trifle wild, perhaps, but that’s the way of the young,” the toad said. “You have to allow for a little excess in boyish ambition.”
“Youth will be served,” Master Li said sententiously. “Sometimes after having been stuffed with truffles and basted in bean curd sauce,” he added.
These stories may not work for everyone, but I think they should work well for people that love the art of storytelling, that grew up on mythology and fairy tales, and have the patience for apparent detours that develop into the path of solution. I’m reminded of Valente’s The Orphan Tales, Goldberg’s The Princess Bride, Williams’ Inspector Chen series, and just about every myth I’ve ever read. This is an excellent group of books, and I’ll be looking to find them in hardcover for my collection.