Review: Barry Hughart – Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Eight Skilled GentlemenEight Skilled Gentlemen by Barry Hughart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gather Hughart had intended his three works focused upon Number Ten Ox and Master Li to extend out to seven novels in total. However, fate intervened in his falling out with his publishers. The works were then not written given that, as Hughart remarked, he was afraid of becoming repetitive.

I think that was a wise choice.

All three works – Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and now this can be summarised in much the same way. Hughart draws upon Chinese myth and legend to construct stories of improbable characters and matter-of-fact magic throwing his two heroes into the midst of it all to solve a mystery and to attempt to stop the bad guys wreaking havoc. The story lines are complex, but our heroes are fun and fun is to the fore.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

It was, perhaps, unwise of me to read all three novels back-to-back, but I think it’s probably right to three-star this one for quality rather than as a reflection of my feeling I’d probably had about enough by the end of it. The trilogy started off well, Number Ten Ox and Master Li amusingly eccentric in their relationship, their rhetoric, and their actions, though the plot was a little skittish and difficult to follow. With the second work, our heroes were somewhat less fun, but the plot less skittish, (though still more difficult to follow).

With Eight Skilled Gentlemen, though, it’s clear that the amusing eccentricities of Li and Ox are insufficient to span a triology of novels, and the complexity of the storyline is to the fore. In this plot, as previously, everything pivots on ancient Chinese stories which we see played out in their repercussions as the novel progresses. The trouble is it’s difficult to know which elements of the fable need to be remembered in order to make best sense of what follows, and by the end any reference to information we were given a hundred and fifty pages earlier is lost. Well, for me it was lost.

Moreover, the twists become somewhat repetitive across the three novels. I could see what would happen at the end from the beginning, if not in detail then at least in outline, with one of the characters in particular. Moreover, Hughart doesn’t expand such supplementary characters sufficiently to make up for the deficit brought about by the over familiarity with Ox and Li that sees them mined out here.

This is not a terrible work, far from it, and doubtless – as already suggested – the fact I was glazed over by the end of it had as much to do with my mistake in reading all three novels back-to-back instead of spacing them out as any fault with the work itself, this approach to the three novels thus something not to recommend. Nonetheless, with this third novel, Ox and Li have outlived their potential, and though it would be too much to characterise it as a novel too far, it certainly verges upon being so.

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