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By Barry Hughart

Publisher: Doubleday

Third of Hughart's remarkable fantasies set in a seventh-century China that never was, and featuring the aged Imperial detective, Master Li, and his uncommonly large and muscular sidekick, Number Ten Ox. Hughart draws on Chinese myth, folklore, and culture for his rich, intricate backdrops, though he does tend to overcomplicate his plots--and this one in particular. Li and Ox, having dispatched a bloodthirsty vampire ghoul, become involved with the affairs of the Gentlemen of the title. These turn out to be prehistoric demons, each with a characteristic method of doing murder, who once were the gods of China's aboriginal inhabitants. Complications are introduced by the Celestial Master, the Empire's highest and holiest Tao priest; Yen Shih the expert puppeteer and his powerful-shaman daughter; and the magical drought that is afflicting China. In the end, Li and Ox must win a ghostly boat-race against their mysterious adversary, with the fate of China at stake, What made the previous two volumes (Bridge of Birds; The Story of the Stone, 1988) so striking and successful was the balanced combination of historical-fantasy, horror, and comedy. Now, with the humor much reduced, the signs are that Hughart is beginning to take it all rather too seriously (there are several pages of Chinese poetry), and the upshot is a still enjoyable but definitely patchier outing.