Once again World Fantasy Awardwinner Barry Hughart blends folklore and fantasy to create a work of enchantment set in an ancient China that never was…but should have been Master Li and Number Ten Ox—heroes of Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone—return to solve the mystery of how and why respected mandarins are being mysteriously murdered Unbelievably, the only suspects appear to be mythical demons…


10 thoughts on “Eight Skilled Gentlemen

  1. carol. carol. says:


    Take a Shakespeare problem play, steep it in Chinese myth and add a dash of lethal mayhem and you might come close to approximating Eight Skilled Gentleman.

    Master Li and Number Ten Ox are attending the public execution of Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu as imperial witnesses, despite Master Li’s well known dislike of formality. When the execution is interrupted by a dying vampire ghoul carrying a half-gnawed head, Master Li realizes there’s something strangely aristocratic about the victim that requires further investigation. They discover the rest of the victim in the Forbidden City, and after consulting with the sainted Celestial Master, are concerned the saint just confessed to the crime. But events turn out far weirder than Master Li suspects, and solving the crime will require investigating smugglers, traveling with a scarred puppeteer and his lovely shaman daughter, and tracking down mystical creatures and myths that are almost three thousand years old.

    “One assumes [the artists] were half mad, and they honored their gods by carving deities in death agonies. You’re looking at an unparalleled psychological self-portrait of an exhausted race, teetering upon the edge of extinction, but don’t you see the wonder of our recent experiences? Some of the old gods were sure to survive.”

    Almost too complicated to explain yet extremely simple on the surface, Hughart has truly produced a work of art. There is the seemingly straightforward investigation driving the plot, shaded with social commentary along the way (and don’t even kid yourself that Hughart is only talking about ancient Chinese culture). There is side illumination of the history of the Chinese people, and their own myths about the cultural absorption/conflict with indigenous groups. There is outright silliness, particularly with the foodie to end all foodies (literally), Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, or the time that Master Li impersonates a grave ghoul.

    “Somehow or other he got his hands on one of your memoirs!” He swiftly scanned the chicken tracks. “Usual critical comments!” he yelled. “Clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors, and so on!”

    But it’s not only the complexly woven themes. Hughart plays around more than ever with the narrative. In the beginning, Master Li shares letter from a reader accusing Number Ten Ox of purple prose (no self-mocking there). The festive atmosphere of the square is conveyed in groups of shouting (“Sha la jen la!” “Hao! Hao! Hao!”). Poetry is read. The tale of a weak noble is demonstrated, complete with a broom as sword. A play within a play is performed. Prophetic dreams (as well as priapic ones) are experienced. On two occasions, one with the puppeteer and one with Number Ten Ox, we are treating to Master Li as Greek chorus, leaving me giggling out loud (“Good evening” “That’s the Miao-chia”). The narrative is far more complex than either of the other books. Most of the time it works–it turns out it is usually necessary to understand the plot–but sometimes not at well. Quite honestly, that’s about on par with my Shakespeare experiences–the play-within-a-play device generally annoys.

    It’s worth noting that there are a couple of gruesome episodes, with poor Ox standing in for the audience with a heartfelt “Gligghh!” While I had my doubts for the author choice to include such scenes, it did put me in mind of the old, old tales–the one where Cinderella’s sisters chopped off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, or the one where Bluebeard has the locked room with bodies.

    “Every historian is faced with a chapter in which he cannot win. If he includes the relevant material he will send his readers screaming into the night, and if he doesn’t include it he isn’t writing history.”

    The first time I read, I was suffering from Tired, and as the shenanigans built, I had trouble understanding the dizzying changes in direction. When thinking about my review, I started over and re-read the entire book. Like experiencing Shakespeare again and again, each time through allows me to consider some different aspect, whether plot, emotion or lyricism. Overall, worth the time, clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors and all.


  2. Heidi The Reader Heidi The Reader says:

    My experience with the old man has taught me to keep my mouth shut when the wrinkles around his eyes squeeze up in tight concentric circles, so I waited until his mind relaxed along with the wrinkles, and then he shook himself and turned toward me. Ox, have you ever visited the Forbidden City?

    Eight Skilled Gentlemen is the final book of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series. I feel it missed the mark somewhat.

    Like the previous two books, it has some beautiful imagery and fantastical magic sequences based in an ancient fictional China of Barry Hughart, the author's, own creation. As usual, I liked the interactions between our two heroes. I also liked riding along while Master Li and Ox attempt to solve the murder mystery.

    All we can do now is go down that list of involved mandarins and find the weak link. You may have you break a few of the bastard's bones, my boy, but one way or another he's going to enable us to toss the rest of them in jail, the sage said grimly.

    Unlike the rest of the series, the overarching story for this entry felt scattered, so much so, that the ending felt almost tacked on. Which seems like a harsh criticism, except those final scenes were my favorite of the book.

    If only it had felt more connected to the rest of the tale...

    Like some of the other readers of this series, I noticed some repetition in Hughart's storytelling by the third book. Formulaic can still be brilliant, but I'm not certain this book reached that bar.

    There was also Hughart's unfortunate tendency to have his characters launch into song or prose within the story. This should have added to the immersive feeling of the reading experience, but I found myself skimming when I reached those sections. Again, it felt more repetitive this time around than magical.

    Adding to my disappointment, Eight Skilled Gentlemen was clearly supposed to be part of a longer series. The final few lines of the book offer no satisfying conclusion for characters whom I have come to love during the 850 pages I spent with them.

    The little bit I have researched about the author seems to indicate Hughart had a disagreement with his publisher and then tired of writing it. He passed away in August of last year.

    It is incredibly sad because the books are so lovely and Hughart deserved the chance to finish them in a manner he saw fit. I think it's a loss not just for the author's family but for the entire fantasy-reading world.

    In conclusion, if you haven't read this series and like fantasy, you must give it a try. Just be aware it is a work of art with an abrupt end.


  3. Melissa McShane Melissa McShane says:

    Much as I admire this book--hence the five-star rating--it somehow leaves me uncomfortable. Maybe it's that a lot of people die who don't deserve to; maybe it's how often Li Kao and Number Ten Ox are betrayed. Possibly it's just that Master Li and Ox are constantly just seconds too late to prevent their mysterious adversary from collecting yet another artifact that could mean the destruction of the world. In any case, it's another vivid and intriguing story in Ox's histories.

    As with Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone, the mystery is rooted in Chinese myth. In this case, the titular gentlemen are the Eight Immortals, legendary figures whose power can be transferred to tools that destroy evil. However, Hughart balances these immortals with eight creatures of evil, many of whom share traits with their good opposites. But good and evil aren't so easily defined, in this case; ultimately, the two octets represent yin and yang, and the evil is that the yang force has overwhelmed the yin, and that this imbalance is destructive to humanity.

    Despite this being a sort of fetch quest, I like Li Kao and Ox's efforts to work out what's going on and retrieve the bad guys' magic items. I also like that although this book, like The Story of the Stone, ends with the evil person being unmasked and punished, in this case the antagonist is sympathetic as well as evil.

    I've heard that Barry Hughart quit writing because he didn't think his books were being promoted well by his publisher. If that's true, it's practically a crime. I hope Hughart knows just how well-loved his books are, even twenty-five years after publication, and that his writing made a difference in fantasy literature.


  4. Jokoloyo Jokoloyo says:

    The third novel of the series, and it is better than the second one. alas, the first novel is still the best. Don't get me wrong, all the novels are hilarious with exotic fictitious Ancient China setting. I just think, the ending of the first novel is still the best, it could made me highly emotional when read the last pages.

    OK, back to the third novel, Eight Skilled Gentleman.

    The beginning of the novel is actually the most ambitious of the series. The novel started on Capital City with vivid and hilarious narration of the city life. Then the story begins. I won't spoil anything more for the plot. The old recipe from previous novels is still on this novel.

    (view spoiler)[I have one fav chapter, chapter with Number Ten Ox said Gligghh! a lot. (hide spoiler)]


  5. Roger Eschbacher Roger Eschbacher says:

    The third and (sadly) final book in Barry Hughart's superb Bridge of Birds series, Eight Skilled Gentlemen follows the adventures of Master Li and Number Ten Ox as they work on solving a new mystery involving mythical demons, corrupt officials, and a master puppeteer. Who or what is murdering high-ranking mandarins and stealing their prized ancient artifacts? Li and Ox set out to discover the answer and we are taken along for the exciting and humor-filled ride.

    I say sadly because this rich world -- with it's beguiling characters and lush setting -- easily had the potential for seven or more books, in my opinion. Mr. Hughart, in his 80's at the time of the writing of this review, felt that he was treated poorly by his publishers (according to Wikipedia) and swore off on continuing the series. Truly a great loss for those of us readers who fell in love with his stories of an ancient China that never was.


  6. Amita Amita says:

    The thing with mysteries is that you can't use the same trick over and over again and expect a reaction from the reader. In Bridge of Birds, the reveals were fresh and clever. In Story of the Stone, it was somewhat expected, but still interesting. But the third time is not the charm here, and the mystery part of Hughart's books that I found so compelling before was a bit of a dud.

    This book also lacked the same fairy tale air that the first two books captured. Even though the story revolves around an ancient myth like the others, it was never as magical. Without that abstract atmosphere, the story's more eccentric parts felt incredibly out of place and took me away from the story. In particular, there's a scene where they (view spoiler)[kill a man, and end up having to cook the body to get rid of the evidence. (hide spoiler)]


  7. Andrew Lasher Andrew Lasher says:

    Rather than going through the hassle of coming up with a good review for this book, I will just say this: I read Eight Skilled Gentlemen from cover to cover in under 24 hours. If that isn't a glowing enough endorsement for you, then I don't know what will be.

    The only reason that I gave this book four stars was that it was comparatively weaker than the first book in the trilogy, Bridge of Birds. If it weren't for that, Eight Skilled Gentlemen would have easily scored perfect marks.

    It had everything that makes these books great, mysticism, humor, puns, and most of all, fantastic imagery. On top of all that, I hate to say it, but Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu might be my favorite literary character of all time. I know it is a bit much to ask, but I would do just about anything for a novel that talks about leading up to his arrest and imprisonment.

    So yes, this book has it all, and is a good fit with the other books of the trilogy. The only sad point is that there were originally going to be seven books, but now we have to settle for only three. Now that is a disappointment.


  8. ambyr ambyr says:

    The writing here is as charming as in the series' first entry, but the plot seemed a little more ramshackle and the whole just a bit less filled with, well, delight. Or maybe that's my own feelings on knowing that this is the last book Hughart would ever write seeping through. I enjoyed it, but I think if I feel a desire to delve into Number Ten Ox's adventures again, it will be with a reread of the original volume.


  9. Scott Scott says:

    I gave this four stars instead of three for several reasons. The first bring that it did have some very laugh out loud moments and the other, that it was the final book in the series. The star rating was more for the overall story arc.


  10. Sineala Sineala says:

    Not as good as the other two Master Li books, but considering how excellent the first two were, not as good still means it's a pretty fun read. We are once again plunged into the usual sort of mythological mystery quest, this time involving eight awful murderous beasts, and of course a great number of strange things happen. I think perhaps it's a little more gruesome and a little less whimsical than the other two, but still interesting and very much recommended. The books are definitely starting to show hints of a formula, and I think in some ways it's good that Hughart only wrote three, because that way the series got to end while it was still wonderful instead of sliding into decay and ruin. (On the other hand, if there were more I would happily read them.)

    The one thing I really don't understand, though, are all the throwaway references to a correspondence of literary criticism of Ox's chronicles of their previous adventures, between Master Li and a barbarian by the name of Quintus Flaccus. The famous Quintus Flaccus is Quintus Horatius Flaccus, and in fact everything that Master Li quotes as being a criticism of Ox's writing is from Horace's Ars Poetica, which predates the setting of this story by about 600 years. Huh? Is it a joke? I don't get it. Mostly I am confused.

    But other than that: hooray! I am sad that there are no more of these books to read.