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Excellent novel by Barry Hughart describing the adventures of Master Li, a scholar, with a slight flaw in his character, and assistant Number Ten Ox through an ancient China which never was. Essentially, a China where the mythology is real, so the detective story involves ghosts and visits to Hell to petition the local bureaucracy. A very good read. It is loosely based on Chinese mystery novels staring a magistrate translated in the mid-1950s.

'Bridge of Birds', Hughart's first book, won the 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel.

It's a lovely romp, with puzzles, mazes, love affairs, drunkeness, quirky characters, crazy escapades, strange rhymes, inventive trickery, tiger-masked dukes, the Queen of Ginseng, invisible monster hands, lost goddesses, faithless handmaidens and an almost wholly invented (or at least embroidered) history and mythology of China. It's loopy without being annoying. I was sent this as a being-stuck-in-hospital present, and I swear that it made me feel a whole lot better very fast.

If you can get hold of it, grab it, run out of the shop cackling with glee, and shut yourself away for a few hours to read it in one sitting.

Oh, and the visit to hell mentioned above takes place in The Story of the Stone, the second of the three Master Li and Number Ten Ox books. The third in the series is The Eight Skilled Gentlemen.

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