Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sick days are awesome days

So, I just spent two weeks feeling incredibly sick. My wife always bugs me every year to get a flu shot, and, while I think it's a good idea in general, she treats it like if we collectively as a family don't all get flu shots, we'll die of the plague and any illness that has the potential to enter our house should be treated like a CDC quarrantine emergency. So, despite getting that flu shot, I was laid low by "flu-like symptoms." Evidently, even a flu shot won't prevent you from feeling incredibly bad for several days, as you drag yourself through a fever-induced delerium trying to just basically function on a mechanical level while the rest of the world cranks up to eleven around you because the holidays are over and we got to get on the ball, you know--new year, new president, new underwear dude!

BUT! But and however: illness of this sort does allow for some comforts--you do get to steal away from many obligations, social and otherwise. I had to call in sick to work one day, and I didn't have to run errands, go meet folks, and otherwise leave the house much, which left lots of time for reading.

I remember when I was in school and I got sick, the upside of getting sick was staying home in bed and reading big piles of stuff. I have two strategies for selecting sick day readings: the first is one enormous book, and the other is to get a big stack of comics to plow through all day. Luckily, over the past several weeks, I've been able to do both.

By the time I hit high school, I had grown very disillusioned with the fantasy I saw in the bookstores. I was tired of what seemed to be the incredible sameness of every title--they all had big muscle-y guys on the cover fighting dragons. Basically a mish-mash of Todd Lockwood/R.A. Salvatore/"elves and orcs and dwarves better scurry..." kind of thing. But I had cut my teeth on fantasy, I still loved fantasy, and I kept going back to the shelves looking for anything fresh or different. By the time I got to college I was practically despondent over what I perceived as the sad state of fantasy at that time.*

That's when I spotted Barry Hughart's Eight Skilled Gentlemen. FIrst off, the title: what an odd, suggestive, intriguing title! None of the words "doom," "shard," "haven," etc. within a half-mile of this book. Second, a quick glance at the cover blurb told me this was based on Chinese mythology--that certainly sounded different. And the hero was a crotchety old man with a big-hearted galoot as his sidekick. How could you go wrong with this book!

After I devoured Eight Skilled Gentlemen, I immediately hunted down the other books in the series: Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone. All three books were equally wonderful, funny, filled with adventure and intrigue. The main characters, Master Li (a scholar and a rogue who's fond of describing himself as having "a flaw in my character") and Number Ten Ox (the narrator of the books and the heart and soul of the stories), are vivid, entertaining, and wholely unlike 99% of fictional protagonists. The stories are set up like mysteries, and they draw on the incredibly rich background of Chinese myth and folk tales, and they are otherwise very hard to describe because they are so unique in the world of fantasy genre.

Man I loved those books. And I was continually frustrated and dismayed by the fact that Hughart never seemed to write a new one. Copies of the books are rare and hard to find, and whenever I ran into someone who'd read them, it was like running into an old acquaintance--someone with whom you could strike up a conversation about old times and old friends, and think wistfully about what might have been were there more tales to tell.

Recently, the fantastic Subterranean Press released an omnibus edition of the three books titled The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox which includes a new introduction by Barry Hughart. In it, Hughart explains that it wasn't poor sales or poor treatment on the part of his earlier publishers that ended the series. No, it was that he didn't want to fall into a rut. Which, as sad as it is to think there'll be no more Master Li and Number Ten Ox books, I have to respect. After all, isn't the fact that these books were different from all the rest what drew me to them in the first place?

Instead, I feel lucky enough to have taken some time while I was feeling incredibly sick and settle in with some old friends who made me feel, if even for a little while, so much better.

So what else did I read while I was sick? That'll have to wait for another day...

Note: This collected edition from Subterranean Press is evidently already sold out at the publisher; however, older editions of the individual book (as well as this and one older collected edition) are available from used outlets and libraries.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (For more info)
ISBN: 9781596062009

*Of course, I was wrong, there was lots of interesting fantasy coming out at the time; it just wasn't anywhere I was looking. Of course, nowadays, with the internet, blogs (like this one and others), publishers of the caliber of Subterranean Press, and really good conventions, it's a lot easier...

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