Of Disappointment and Sequelitis – A Review of The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart

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I like to think of myself as “pragmatic,” and those friends of mine who have known me longest tend to agree. When I say I’m pragmatic, I tend to mean that I like to see the silver lining in every cloud, but I’m not blind to the fact that there is still a cloud, and so I prepare for rain. I prefer walking this middle line between out-and-out optimism and out-and-out negativity, because I know the benefits of seeing both sides of the same coin. In the general living of my life, I walk that middle road.

My attitude tends to change when it comes to the books I read. In that regard, I’m definitely an optimist. When I read the first book in a series and really, really like it, I tend to bring that positive, upbeat energy with me when I read the next book in the sequence. Occasionally, the payoff is big, such as when I first read the Harry Potter series, which only seemed to get better and better until I hit the rut otherwise known as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I have experienced a similar issue with a lot of series, especially long-running ones with more than three or four books. More often than not, however, the second book in a series is rarely ever as good as the first. This issue is known as “sequelitis.”

When I read Bridge of Birds, the first book in the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox trilogy, I was floored. So many fantasies are grounded in European myth and legend, but here was a novel that was more firmly grounded in the Chinese side of things than anything else, with the title itself being a reference to a notable and much-loved Asian festival. Managing to cleverly blend mythology and historical fact, together with lovable, memorable characters and a narrator with a voice that was an absolute joy to read, the experience I had with Bridge of Birds is one that I cherish – and one that I hoped to find once again in the next book, The Story of the Stone.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. When I picked up The Story of the Stone I was looking forward to another romp through this “China that Never Was” alongside Master Li and Number Ten Ox, the two central characters of Bridge of Birds, and whose company I thoroughly enjoyed while reading that novel. I was looking forward to Number Ten Ox’s wonderful, funny, and humbly wise narrative, as well as Master Li’s incredible (and incredulous) schemes. Having just come off reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, I was looking forward to reading what sort of hijinks these two merry rogues would get themselves into.

Sadly, The Story of the Stone was, simply put, boring. The plot is really not much different from Bridge of Birds, and – worse – it has none of the beautiful, soaring quality I got while I was reading the first novel. There was something truly magical about Bridge of Birds, and I was simply not getting that in The Story of the Stone. It was as if whatever magic Hughart’s storytelling had in the first book simply evaporated in the second.

To be sure, the story is not as much of a slog as I make it sound. The mystery at the heart of the storyline is still interesting, and Master Li and Number Ten Ox are as clever and as fun as they ever were in the first book, but for some odd reason they do not shine in The Story of the Stone as much as they did in Bridge of Birds. Master Li’s schemes did not seem as inspired as they were in the first book, and Number Ten Ox’s observations did not seem as enlightening. Like I said, it’s like whatever magic there was in the first book is just gone in this second book.

One of the hallmarks of the first book was the wild and colorful cast of side characters that kept cropping up in the strangest of circumstances. In The Story of the Stone, two characters – Grief of Dawn and Moon Boy – are rather interesting at first, but as the story progresses they, too, lose their shine. They are hardly like some of the other side characters in the first novel, who sustain the reader’s interest all the way through the book. And as for the villain, I am sad to say that I was quite sure who was behind the wickedness of the central mystery by the time I had reached the midpoint of the novel. This is not a good sign, especially when, in the first novel, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on (in a good way) until the very last moment.

Another notable hallmark of the first book is that it blends historical references with fairy tales, legends, and myths, with the result being that Bridge of Birds feels like the very best kind of Hayao Miyazaki film. The Story of the Stone does that as well, but it seems oddly clunky this time around, with none of that magic I got in the first book. The heavy emphasis on Neo-Confucianism, while interesting at first, got rather tiring, especially when it got brought up during a trip to Hell that Master Li, Number Ten Ox, and Moon Boy take during a crucial part of the novel. That trip to Hell had, I think, the potential to return the entire novel to a pitch and feel similar to that in Bridge of Birds, but it never gets there.

Overall, The Story of the Stone is a disappointment. Though Master Li and Number Ten Ox are, in truth, the same as they were in the first book, the general plot and storyline of the second novel seem to just drag them down, and they are unable to pull the book up with them. The supporting characters are not nearly as fascinating as the ones in Bridge of Birds, which is rather sad because the cast is somewhat smaller this time around and so there is great potential for some really good character development there. And as for the mystery, well, as I said I managed to figure out the culprit by the book’s midway point, so it isn’t quite as strong as the mystery presented in Bridge of Birds. As a continuation of the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, it does well enough, but I do hope that the third and last book is better than this one. It would truly be sad if it were otherwise.

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